SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. - Charles Howell pulled his tee ball right on the impossibly banked par-3 seventh hole Tuesday, eliciting a quick challenge from his practice-round partner's caddie.
"I'll carry your bag naked the rest of the round if you get up and down from there," said Stevie Williams, the rich and famously brusque looper for Tiger Woods.
Howell did get up and down for par from a bunker. To the great pleasure of the U.S. Open galleries following them around Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Williams reneged on his dare.
"I don't know why," Howell said. "He owes me."
In the next four days, the challenge for the Augusta native will be even greater and the reward far more enticing. Howell competes in his 11th career major and fourth consecutive U.S. Open on one of the most revered American venues.
After an early morning practice round with the world's No. 1 player Tuesday, Howell says he has just one wish for his 25th birthday Sunday. He hopes the same principal players are involved.
"Hopefully I'll be sleeping in and playing a late afternoon round at Shinnecock," he said. "I'd love to do it with Tiger."
Howell is getting his first taste of Shinnecock's Americanized version of links-style golf. Tuesday was his second 18-hole tour of the Long Island treasure, and Woods showed him the sights including the spot where he injured his wrist in the second round of the 1995 U.S. Open and the place three holes later where he finally had to withdraw from the tournament.
Howell is ready to create major memories of his own on a course he ranks right up there with any he's ever played.
"Nothing comes close to Augusta, but other than that this is one of my favorites," he said. "It's fun to play."
Shinnecock is unlike any other major venue on U.S. soil. Built among hills, shaped by tall fescues and swept by nearly constant winds that blow across this narrow neck of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Peconic Bay, Shinnecock Hills is a decidedly different test than any Howell has experienced in his young career.
"It's a British Open in New York," Howell said. "It looks like we've got three in a row - here, the British Open at Troon and then the PGA up in Kohler, Wis. (at Whistling Straights). Three British Opens in a row, so I better get used to it."
The way this up-and-down year has gone for Howell, he's due for a strong finish this week. He finished 15th at Bay Hill only to miss the cut the next week at the Players Championship. He tied for 13th at the Masters Tournament before missing the cut in Houston. He tied for fifth in New Orleans before missing the cut at the Wachovia Championship in Charlotte. He tied for ninth in Memphis before missing the cut at the Memorial in his last event.
With 10 straight made cuts in majors and seven top-30 finishes, Howell seems positioned to contend here. Much like his friend Tiger, Howell insists he's close to putting everything together. The odds are stronger this week considering the tougher the event, the better he plays.
"I loved Bethpage and I love this too because they're hard and par is a good score and will get rewarded," he said. "I like majors because it rewards a par. You kind of grind your way through it and somehow find a way to make a par and that keeps you in the hunt."
Howell tees off in the first two rounds with a pair of major winners - 2002 U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen and 1994 British Open winner Justin Leonard.
Howell would love to join them and extend the streak of first-time major winners to seven.
"That would be the best birthday present I could think of," he said.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com.