Originally created 02/24/03

Close loss not an easy pill to swallow



LOS ANGELES - The hardest part about losing isn't always the act of losing. It's living with losing.

"It sucked," was Charles Howell's succinct synopsis of good day gone bad at Riviera Country Club. "That is my general thought."

Howell didn't have much time to decompress after his 6-foot birdie putt slid past the left lip of the second playoff hole. In an instant, a Nissan Open tournament he hadn't trailed in since Friday afternoon was lost. Mike Weir inherited his second victory of the season by letting the leaders slip past him.

"Had I played the way I should have, it shouldn't have been a playoff," Howell said. "And this tournament was lost well before that (playoff) hole."

The shock hadn't begun to wear off before Howell had to thoughtfully relive the agony with the media. It may be the cruelest part of the business, smiling at your interrogators as they siphon your emotions.

"It's about as hard as losing," he said. "I'll get my blood pressure down in about an hour and we'll turn it around."

It shouldn't have come to this. Howell slept soundly on a three-shot lead. Nothing had changed when he made the turn, even par for the day and still three shots up on Nick Price.

But then the young man from Augusta, who had only three bogeys in the first 60 holes, bogeyed three of the next five to lose his way. He butchered the 10th, spoiled a perfect drive on the 12th and three-putted from 60 feet on the 14th - the easiest par 3 on the course. A second shot into the rough cost him a chance to birdie the par-5 17th that could have won it for him in regulation.

He looked unsettled, though he swears he wasn't.

"I never at one point today thought I was going to lose the tournament," he said after shooting 2-over 73.

Price saw it differently. He's known Howell since he was 10, and the veteran sensed an uneasiness in the youngster. Price tried to settle him down even as he tried to beat him.

"I think he was a little nervous today," Price said. "I could detect, perhaps, in some of his decision-making. He made a couple of bad calls."

"There were probably more poor swings than poor decisions," Howell said.

Part of the problem was that Howell never saw Weir coming - literally. All day Howell thought his competition was Price. "Nick and I would have bet we'd run away with it," he said.

Weir started the day seven shots behind and came charging with a closing 5-under-par 66. The on-site scoring system went a little haywire and the scoreboards were woefully behind. Howell walked to the par-5 17th thinking he was leading the tournament when he realized Weir was finished at 9-under.

"That didn't matter," he said. "I knew I had to birdie 17 and I didn't."

Howell realized it wouldn't be an easy day on the first hole when Price trumped Howell's birdie with an eagle.

"It's tough to lose a shot on the first hole when you make birdie," Howell said. "That was a wake-up call."

Unfortunately, so was the ending. After a perfect bunker shot he had to carry precisely 26 yards to clear the lip of another bunker and nestle it close to the hole, Howell misread the short putt to extend the playoff.

It's the second playoff loss in his young career, the first was in 2001 to Shigeki Maruyama in Milwaukee.

But this was worse, Howell said. He was young and nervous and seeking his first victory in Milwaukee. He felt more prepared to win again at Riviera.

"I am still learning how to deal with it," he said. "I think the more of these situations I'm in, the better I will get. I'm still 23, though I feel like I'm 50. I still have a lot more ahead of me."

Howell is strong enough to let it go and move on. Even so, hard lessons are never fun to live with.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.