Originally created 01/30/05

Howell endears self with calm, cool demeanor



If ever there are moments when the rules of decorum could be relaxed, this was one.

In the annals of golf history, you would be hard-pressed to find a more cruel display of luck-crushing skill. We're talking a perfect shot from 95 yards on the 72nd hole to take the lead - and maybe win your first tournament in more than two years - and the ball goes INTO THE HOLE then bounces INTO THE WATER.

There wasn't even a ball mark on the lip of the hole.

Good grief, Charlie Howell!

"I've watched a lot of old highlight videos and I've never seen that before," Howell said. "That's going from the penthouse to the outhouse pretty quick."

The golf gods - and certainly any fan who has ever picked up a club - would have forgiven some kind of emotional outburst. This wasn't your ordinary rub-of-the-green kind of bad bounce. Schleprock didn't have this kind of cursed luck in Bedrock.

This warranted a Craig Stadler-esque, shaft-snapping, profanity spewing outburst. It called for a Lou Piniella divot-kicking, pin-stealing tantrum. It called for a John McEnroe, wedge-abusing, "Are you serious!" rant. It called for a full-scale, Krakatoan eruption of epic proportions.

That's not Howell's style, of course. The polite pro from Augusta simply stood there, mouth agape, hand running over his closely cropped hair as the harshness of the reality sank in like his Callaway ball into the

green-front pond.

"I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," Howell said.

Days later at his home in Orlando, Fla., Howell was still digesting his clubhouse lead in the Buick Invitational that came and went in a nanosecond.

"Seems like a blur," Howell said. "The only thing I can remember is the sound the ball made when it hit the hole. It was so loud."

Howell shook the echoes off well enough. Two swings later, he chipped into the hole for a bogey, ultimately finishing at 13-under par and tied for second, three shots behind Tiger Woods. If the ball stayed in the hole for eagle, Howell would have faced Woods in a playoff. If it had missed and left him a tap-in birdie, the pressure would have been on the others to catch him.

"I'd like to have posted 15-under and see what happened," Howell said.

Howell waited around long enough to see luck's other extreme as Woods nearly whiffed his final-hole approach - yet ended up between water and grandstands on a spit of fairway not much wider than a driveway.

Considering the disparate quality and backwards consequences of their final approaches, did Woods feel just a little bit guilty of his victory over one of his best friends on tour?

"Pfft!" Woods shrugged. "No."

Maybe it was karma getting even for Howell declining a groomsman's role in Woods' wedding. If that's the case, call them all square.

From a golf standpoint, all was not lost with one ridiculously bad break. There was much to gain in defeat.

Howell's gentlemanly behavior certainly endeared himself to fans. He got a rousing ovation when he walked up to the final green and another when he chipped in.

"They may have just felt sorry for me," he said.

He scored more points when he sat in the television broadcast booth just minutes after his surreal finish. Broadcasters Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo - major champions both - surmised that Howell's good sportsmanship in the face of bad luck will reap longterm dividends with spectators as a sentimental favorite. Much like Greg Norman after the 1996 Masters Tournament collapse or Phil Mickelson after his first 47 majors.

"I'll take every bit of fan support I can get," Howell said.

Howell certainly isn't feeling sorry for himself. One bad bounce notwithstanding, the start of his 2005 season has been nothing but a high. Considering a year earlier during the weekend of the Buick Invitational, Howell spent the night in a hospital receiving IV fluids, his tie for third in Hawaii and tie for second at Torrey Pines is red hot.

He's making more putts, and his off-season emphasis on everything 100 yards and in is clearly paying off - maybe a little too well.

"It takes a lot of pressure off a long season," Howell said of his $636,800 that has him sixth on the money list. "I still feel like I'm a ways off, but I'm a whole lot better than I was last year."

Up 25 spots to 32nd in the world rankings and seventh in the Presidents Cup standings, Howell seems poised to make a major breakthrough. Seeing how the most perfect shot can get lost, Howell is careful not to get ahead of himself.

"I'm kind of tired of setting these high goals every year when you start, because I've found that if you meet them you feel you're supposed to and when you don't you're frustrated," he said. "I'm just trying to play golf every day for 18 holes and see where it takes me."

Assuming most of his perfect shots don't come with penalty strokes from here on out, it might take him where he's wanted to be all along - in the company of Tiger and the rest of the gang on top of the golf world.

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