Originally created 06/26/04

From 83 to 61 in one round

One of Charles Howell's favorite phrases is the country club equivalent of the gearhead mantra "That's racin'." It's almost always delivered with a shrug.

It's just golf.

How else can the Augusta native explain the fickle nature of the game he plays day-to-day for a living? How else can he make sense out of a skill that allows him to finish with an 83 in the final round of the U.S. Open on Sunday and turn right around to finish with eight straight 3s in the first round of the Booz Allen Classic on Thursday?

How else can you handle going from your career worst round to your lifetime best? And how else can you rationalize shooting 28 on nine holes one day and 37 on the same nine the next?

"It's just golf," Howell said.

Howell went from the USGA hardhat zone to THE zone in one official round. He shaved 22 shots off his score, going from 83 at Shinnecock Hills to 61 at Avenel - 22 actual strokes and 23 against par.

"That's a big swing," Howell said.

And that wasn't even the best turnaround of the day. That "honor" went to Billy Mayfair (89 to 66), the man who just happens to hold the PGA Tour record for most shots under par on nine holes that Howell narrowly missed by one Thursday.

This instance of golf happened to come in the middle of a season that Howell describes as "average at best." He epitomizes his catch phrase this year, alternating between hot and cold the past three months when he seems to be either top 15 or home on the weekend.

"It's just golf" is the best way to put any great or abysmal round in proper context. The perfect round has never been played. Annika Sorenstam openly dreams of making 18 birdies and shooting 54, but even she has only got as close as 59.

Howell's 61 included two bogeys and approximately 141 feet of birdie (and eagle) putts made. It bested the course record set only a year ago by David Duval, who crafted the finest

definition of the game's haunting nature by fashioning 62 in the midst of a season when only nine of his 44 rounds were even under par.

Duval, of course, was the last PGA Tour player to hit the mystical 59 - a number Howell wouldn't even touch on an elevator panel in one of his Callaway television ads. Did Howell dare give 59 a thought at all Thursday?

"Walking off the eighth green (his 17th), it flashed in my head," he said, knowing it would take an ace on the downhill par-3 ninth to get it done. "But then you take a look at how small that green looks from the top of that hill and the thought is fleeting."

So is golf. Players know that those ridiculous rounds when everything keeps falling into place are rare. More often than not, when the putter gets hot, the driver gets too loose. Or when the ball-striking seems flawless the cups seem narrower.

But on Thursday for Howell, the fairways appeared wider, the greens bigger with cups the size of manholes and the putting lines somehow painted in brilliant definition.

"It was one of those funny days where everything tends to work your way," Howell said, "and the best that you can do is get out of the way and just let it continue to happen. ... The best way to describe it is you get a feeling that you can do nothing wrong.

"How the recreate that feeling - obviously that's the $64,000 question. But it sure is fun when it does happen."

Recreating it proved impossible. Howell rebounded with 69 that seemed ordinary by contrast.

"As easy as yesterday seemed, today seemed a bit of a grind," Howell said.

"I got off to an okay start, but any time you shoot 10-under par there is still a weird feeling about the following day."

Howell savored his 61 for what is was - just golf. His feat drew congratulatory phone calls from the regulars - his parents, his swing coach, his sports psychologist and the world's No. 1 player. Tiger Woods, who has never done better than two career 61s himself in competition, rang his buddy up to tell him "good playing."

"Tiger probably would have followed up the 61 with another 61," Howell said.

He wouldn't have. Nobody masters the game. Golfers live with that reality. Those magic moments come and go too infrequently.

Howell is content to seek a more attainable goal this weekend - his second PGA Tour victory. Thanks to his 61, he enters the weekend two shots behind leader Adam Scott.

It was Scott's day Friday to reside in "the zone" Howell had so quickly passed through, carding 62 after a stretch when the young Australian has struggled mightily in missing almost every cut since winning The Players Championship in March.

It's just golf.

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

nick wass/associated pressCharles Howell shot 61 in the first round of the Booz Allen Classic, setting a course record at Avenel.


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