Happy to be Home Howell Looking for More

By Associated PressApril 2, 2007, 4:00 pm
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Charles Howell III once had a Christmas tradition like no other.
He always spends the holidays at home with his parents in Augusta, and for the last five years, once he received his official invitation to the Masters, he would play a practice round at Augusta National.
But not this year.
Charles Howell III
Charles Howell shows his disappointment in last year's Masters debacle. (WireImage)
'I wasn't in the tournament,' Howell said Monday. 'And I'm not a member.'
His last memory of the Masters had been that 84 he shot in the second round. After opening with an 80, that put him in last place, one shot worse than 68-year-old Charles Coody. Worse yet, there was no guarantee when Howell might return.
He had his worst year on the PGA TOUR -- two runner-up finishes, but only 52nd on the money list -- and tumbled to No. 82 in the world. The top 50 get into the Masters, so he had only three months to move up 32 spots.
Howell did that, and much more.
After finishing second to Paul Goydos in the Sony Open and to Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines, he was headed for another runner-up finish at Riviera until Phil Mickelson made bogey on the 72nd hole, and Howell beat him on the third playoff hole.
'I needed to win a tournament to feel as I do now,' Howell said.
The feeling is one of confidence, even as he comes home for his sixth appearance in a major that hasn't shown him much love. Howell is No. 15 in the world ranking, and considered one of the favorites to challenge Woods and Mickelson's recent reign at the Masters.
There is a different look this year to the 27-year-old Howell.
A week after beating Mickelson at the Nissan Open, he overwhelmed Sergio Garcia in the second round of the Accenture Match Play Championship in an intriguing match of youth. It wasn't so much the variety of shots that drew attention to Howell, it was seriousness in which he went about his business that day.
'He's got an edge to him this year,' caddie Jimmie Johnson said.
Now it's a matter of taking that attitude and his game to an Augusta National course where Howell has never broken 70 in competition and has never finished in the top 10.
Then again, he has never felt more equipped.
Howell played his first practice round Wednesday with Kevin Smeltz, an instructor from David Leadbetter's stable of swing coaches. He played nine holes Sunday, nine more Monday on a warm, breezy day that continued to add firmness to the course.
There's no need to overdo it.
'I'm one of the lucky few that can say I've played here a lot,' Howell said. 'I know the golf course. And at the end of the day, it just boils down to do you hit the shots and do you make the putts.'
Mickelson, the defending champion, stayed off campus on Monday and Woods played early before spending time on the putting greens. Everyone would like to see the Masters firm and fast, which it hasn't been since the course started growing the last five years with length that now stretches it to 7,445 yards.
For some, it's still a beast.
Scott Verplank was at his locker Monday afternoon when Paul Goydos walked by and asked him what club he hit into ...
Verplank didn't give him a chance to say which hole.
'A wood,' he said.
Power has never been a problem for Howell, rather the shotmaking and putting. He still defends his decision to rely so much on mechanical training aids and videos, although he concedes he has chased the perfect swing for too long.
Success in the spring comes from hours he spent last fall on his putting, rarely working without a coach at his swing to make sure he didn't fall into any bad habits. And he tried to develop more shots.
'I wanted to have a perfect-looking golf swing, and I wanted to have the mechanics and technical aspects of it perfect,' Howell said. 'And I think I sort of got bogged down a little it, as opposed to, 'Let's work on our golf swing and make it better, but let's also find a way to score and win this game.'
'Because at the end of the day, the lowest score wins, not the prettiest golf swing,' he said. 'I think it's taken me a long time to grow up and learn those things.'
The next trick will be controlling his level of expectations.
The Masters means more to Howell than any other major simple because he grew up a 10-minute drive from the club and was inspired to take golf seriously after attending his first tournament in 1987.
'Some guy from Augusta won that year,' he said with a laugh.
That was Larry Mize and his improbable chip from 70 feet that dropped for birdie on No. 11, the second playoff hole, allowing him to beat Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros.
'That was a big part of my growing up, to see a guy from Augusta that won the Masters right here in my backyard,' Howell said. 'I don't think I knew how difficult then this tournament was to win. But I do now.'
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    Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

    By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

    Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

    The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

    "The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

    He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

    Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

    Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Web.com Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

    “Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

    Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

    Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Web.com Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

    Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

    The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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    McIlroy gets back on track

    By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

    There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

    He is well ahead of schedule.

    Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

    “Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

    To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

    And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

    Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

    After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

    Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

    “I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

    The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

    The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

    But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

    Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

    Everything in his life is lined up.

    Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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    Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

    By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

    Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

    Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

    There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

    Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

    Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

    The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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    Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

    By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

    Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

    Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

    It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

    Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

    Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

    While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.