Hometown heroes show their promise

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What will the 2007 Masters Tournament be most remembered for?

The raw weekend cold that left patrons bundled and players bamboozled?

The tough course conditions that sent scores soaring to totals more reminiscent of a U.S. Open?

The crisp Thursday morning when Arnold Palmer restored a welcome ceremonial tradition?

The brisk Sunday afternoon when Tiger Woods failed to close the deal from the final pairing?

Zach Johnson might have been the least likely golfer to win the green jacket since Larry Mize stole the show 20 years ago, but he didn't have nearly the signature moment that thrust the Augusta-born champion into immortality.

The rest of the world might remember - or wish to forget - this Masters for all of those reasons.

From a purely provincial standpoint, however, this was Augusta's Masters.

In the anniversary year of Mize's improbable 1987 triumph, this year's tournament had a local vibe like never before.

Vaughn Taylor and Charles Howell have brought a sense of promise to the Masters that should make the whole town take notice. That they both walked away from Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday disappointed in their end results says a lot about how bright their futures are in the major championship they love the most and in the golf world beyond.

Taylor could have won this weekend - which is a reality few outside of his closest friends would have believed coming in. The kid from Goshen Plantation, Hephzibah High and Augusta State continues to exceed expectations to the point of proving that everybody hasn't expected enough out of him.

Taylor played 18 holes on Sunday with Johnson - a good friend and occasional roommate when they both toiled on the Hooters Tour. They began the day tied, just two off the lead. They use the same putter and putting coach and are known for their skill on the greens. They shared the same low profile as Ryder Cup rookies last fall.

So Taylor knows all too well that what Johnson did on Sunday could just as easily have been him. He knows that if a couple of short putts had dropped on the first two holes he might have had the chance to make a back-nine move. He knows that chances to take down Tiger in the Masters don't come around every year and he watched how Johnson calmly took advantage.

"I learned a lot this week," Taylor said. "I had a lot of pressure to deal with. Hopefully I'll get better because of it."

Howell came into this Masters with a lot more attention on him than Taylor. That's always been the story for Howell, who has fostered high expectations from the time he was a junior at Augusta Country Club through being the NCAA champion at Oklahoma State. He has made exceeding the example set by Mize his primary mission.

So it was only natural that Howell was considered among the favorites this week despite his last-place finish the previous year. Howell had come further faster than any other player on tour. He had buried the wilderness experience of the previous season under a pile of high finishes and a second breakthrough victory that earned him the right to return to his hometown major.

That he couldn't keep the momentum going on an Augusta National course he and everybody else was unfamiliar with isn't surprising. It was harder out there than anybody had ever imagined, and Howell dug himself a hole from which he couldn't climb out.

But Howell snapped a two-year streak of missing the Masters cut and learned valuable lessons for the future.

"I'm only 27 and I've got a lot more Masters ahead of me," Howell said.

The two local boys on Sunday afternoon will leave a far more indelible impression on me than Johnson in his green jacket-clashing blue shirt.

It was the way Howell walked away from the clubhouse looking to convert his disappointment of a 30th-place finish into determination.

And it was the way Taylor lingered behind the 18th green trying not to let his emotions pour out as he received long hugs from his parents, grandmother, sister, girlfriend and so many other friends who shared a mixture of pride and pain.

"It was pretty special out there," said Taylor of a 10th-place finish he punctuated with dignity and class. "I'm a little disappointed in the way I finished, but there will always be next year."

Maybe next year will be the year for either Taylor or Howell to give Augusta the thrill that Mize did. The Masters makes no promises.

But I promise you that Augusta has never been better represented than by this pair of young men who rank among the best in the world. For that, Augusta can be proud.

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


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