Originally created 08/12/05

Howell's making his last stand

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. - The PGA Championship proudly brandishes its slogan, "Glory's Last Shot."

For Charles Howell, redemption's last shot is more on point.

In a majors season he'd like to forget, Howell hopes for one positive result to carry away from 2005.

"Obviously this is a very important tournament and it's important to me this week," Howell said after an even-par 70 on Thursday left him tied for 28th at Baltusrol Golf Club.

"The way I played in the British Open and the Masters, if I could have a good week here, it would taste a little better than my majors have so far this year."

Howell missed cuts at both his hometown Masters Tournament and the British at St. Andrews. In the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, he shot 81 on Sunday.

But it's lean times like this - when his critics howl loudest - that Howell clings to the first piece of advice he was given by his teacher David Leadbetter before turning professional.

"From the day that you turn pro until the day that you retire, everybody is going to have their opinions about you," Leadbetter told him. "Everybody is going to say what they think and what they feel and it's your job - and will be a reflection on how well you perform - to ignore it."

So when Howell sees his name atop a Sports Illustrated survey of his peers

rating him the "most underachieving" player on the PGA Tour, the 26-year-old takes it in stride.

"In a way, I guess you'd rather be on that list than the overachievers," he said. "If you overachieve, they don't think you're any good. I see it as more of a sign that a lot of people think I have a lot of potential. I think that's good and I take that as flattery that they expect me to do better and expect me to do the things I want to do."

What he's done has hardly been so bad. Since 2001, Howell has never finished worse than 34th on the PGA Tour's money list. Heading into this week's PGA, he ranks 37th.

"That ain't all bad," Howell said, whose only PGA Tour victory came in the now-defunct Michelob Championship in 2002.

That his consistency isn't enough speaks to the higher expectations everyone has of him. When ABC analyst and former tour star Lanny Wadkins wonders on the air a week ago how a player with Howell's considerable talent hasn't won more than once almost three years ago, it's not a question Howell hasn't asked himself.

"It's pretty obvious I expected to do more by this time," he said. "I've finished second and third a ton. Obviously I would have loved to have won three or four or five golf tournaments by now and I've only won one. But I understand winning is the only thing it's about out here. At the end of the day, people just care who won."

Why he hasn't won more has invited a host of criticism. The most common results regard his short game. He doesn't work hard enough on his putting, critics contend. He needs to visit the short-game area with his wedges, they cry.

Truth be told, Howell has never worked harder on his short game. Everything from 100 yards and in has been his primary focus since the end of last season.

"I've worked more on my short game from November until today than I had in the previous three years," he said. "But a great short game does not do you any good if you can't hit the ball to take advantage of it. I want a great short game to help me shoot low. I don't want a great short game to be the saving grace every week."

Frankly, Howell probably works too hard. Since he began his obsession with the game at age 7, Howell can barely stand to tear himself away from it for even the shortest of stints. Relaxing and getting away from golf is not something Howell does well. He's wired to work and train and play golf, golf, golf.

"If I'm away from it for a week I get the DTs and shakes," he admits.

His family and friends try intervening on his behalf. Tour peers Tiger Woods and Bo Van Pelt often talk to him about the importance of getting away and gearing down.

Howell and his wife, Heather, went with the Van Pelts to Paradise Island in the Bahamas for a few days after the British Open to recharge by the beach, pool and craps tables. Even on vacation, however, Howell took his clubs and played one round - tying Ernie Els' course record at the Ocean Club with a 65.

"Me learning to have other hobbies and interests is something I'm working on," he said. "It's probably more like a 15-step program for me, but I'm working on it."

More important at the moment is working his way out of what he calls a "funk" that's enveloped him since March. He's missed six cuts in his past 12 events - four of them by just one stroke, including the Players Championship, Masters and British Open.

A fifth-place finish at The International last week was a "shot of confidence" Howell needed heading into the season's final major and the home stretch toward the Tour Championship at East Lake.

Qualifying again for the Presidents Cup team - which would require a victory this week to probably be even considered as a captain's pick - is the furthest thing from Howell's mind.

"My attention shifted to getting confidence and getting a little momentum going; it's been completely off of the Presidents Cup," Howell said. "My big thing is to try to just keep playing well and keep building confidence for the remainder of the year."

As for his critics who expect more, Howell has a simple message.

"I ain't done working yet," he said.

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


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