Time for Howell to adjust course

  • Follow Scott Michaux

ATLANTA - It's not an easy question to ask and probably harder to answer.

Here is Charles Howell at The Tour Championship in his home state. He's won a PGA Tour event this year and almost won another. In two weeks he'll be representing his country in the Presidents Cup in Montreal. He just shot 68.

That said, what's wrong with him? Where did the 2007 season leave the rails?

The question was asked (I hope) with a lot more tact than that, but Howell read between the lines and went with it.

"At the start of the year you've got to look at it and say what were the goals," Howell said. "Win, make the Presidents Cup team, make it to the Tour Championship - it looks like a good season. But to get off to the start I did and not play as well that last few months, that's what's disappointing."

Every one of Howell's accomplishments this season would be high on any player's list of annual goals. Some players would consider it a good career.

Howell is not one of those players. And instead of validating Howell's 2007 as an unqualified success, his achievements actually cover up the blemishes of a long summer. His win, Tour Championship invitation and Presidents Cup eligibility were all sealed and delivered in the first two months of the season before the Florida swing was even halfway complete.

In fact, Howell could have taken the past six months off and still have been exactly where he was this weekend at East Lake Golf Club. Had he not made a single cut since the PODS Championship in Tampa on March 18, Howell would have finished just two spots further back in the FedEx Cup standings (10th instead of 8th) and still been guaranteed a spot at East Lake even if he'd skipped the first three playoff events. He would have still earned a spot on the Presidents Cup team.

But Howell kept grinding through another lackluster summer. He made three of four cuts in majors, yet his finishes were not distinguishing. Howell will have earned nearly $3 million, yet his four largest checks he's earned since March - including a guaranteed six-figure haul this week - came in limited-field, no-cut events.

THE SHARP DROP-OFF from a torrid 11-week stretch from January to mid-March when he won at Riviera, was runner-up in Hawaii and Torrey Pines and registered two other top-10 finishes is harder to explain.

Part of it might be the natural transition from having a different voice in his ear - from David Leadbetter to one of his primary deputies, Kevin Smeltz. Part of it might be from the mental strain of a long West Coast buildup trying to play his way into his beloved Masters Tournament. Much of it has to do with a driver that has eluded him consistently.

"My short game has held stable and been solid," Howell said. "When I've played poorly it's been the driver."

Smeltz said Howell is turning a corner.

"I think he feels like he's a much better golfer than he was at the beginning of the year, even though signs haven't showed up in his results," Smeltz said.

Whatever the reasons, it should be stated that there is a fairness issue when it comes to judging Howell's success. He remains burdened by expectations that he carried with him from his junior days through his college career at Oklahoma State. He's long been touted as the next great young American golfer to come after the dawn of the Tiger Woods era.

while Howell has finished in the top 30 on the money list four of his six full seasons, he's judged on a different curve than fellow Augustan Vaughn Taylor, who has yet to qualify for East Lake. That's simply the way it is when you have the kind of innate talent Howell possesses.

Howell should not be a rank-and-file tour player content with occasional wins and a nice salary. He wants to be in the company of the game's greats who consistently play their way onto leaderboards in every big event. As close as he seems to be at times, he's not there yet.

At 28, Howell still has plenty of time to live up to everything that was projected of him. But at some point his youth becomes a crutch that can't be leaned on any longer.

He's reached a place in his career where it's time to reevaluate his routines and find a game plan that works better for him. He's proved his proficiency at the beginning and ends of the tour seasons, but he's routinely slumped through the summers. And as everyone knows, it's the summers - and the major championships played in that stretch - that ultimately define a golfer.

HOWELL HAS PLAYED through seven major championship summers and made 24 starts, and he's yet to sniff the heat of a Sunday stretch in contention.

Granted, no golfer in Howell's peer group of 20-somethings - Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott, Aaron Baddeley and Justin Rose, to name a few - currently possesses a major title, but each of them has at least tasted the battle.

Whether Howell needs to consider an equipment change or a lifestyle adjustment are options certainly on the table. He's averaged 30 starts a year, and he'll play at least 29 tournaments this year by the time he's finished with appearances in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Las Vegas and a trip to Singapore.

"That's one of the things I'm going to look at," Howell said of his future schedules he insists will be trimmed. "There seems to be a correlation between rest and energy level and my performance."

Howell is discovering other things to balance his life. He's embraced scuba diving and bass fishing.

"I've never had a vice or hobby off the golf course," he said.

That balance needs to sustain him on the golf course through a complete season rather than in spurts of excellence mixed with droughts of mediocrity.

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

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