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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Charles Howell III has been dreaming about playing in the Masters since he first picked up a club. What makes him different from other rookies at Augusta National is that he never dreamed of anything else.
 
He didn't have other hobbies. Once his father joined Augusta Country Club, the course next door to the Masters and just five miles from his house, Howell went to school, played golf and worked out.
 
On weekends, he played golf and worked out.
 
'I've always said I was a dork, but I guarantee you I was one of the happiest kids ever,' Howell said. 'All I did was play golf and work out, but that's all I wanted to do.'
 
Girls?
 
His parents made him go to the senior prom.
 
'One of the girls in his class wanted to go, and somehow word got back to his mom and I,' said Charles Howell Jr., a pediatric surgeon in Augusta. 'We thought he ought to go out of respect for the school. We beat him into submission, and he went. His class was so shocked that they voted him prom king.'
 
At Oklahoma State, where Howell won the 2000 NCAA championship as a junior, he married the first girl he kissed, Heather Myers of Kingfisher, Okla.
 
Howell brought his bride to Augusta National last April, but they stayed for only an hour. Howell was upset he was on the wrong side of the ropes, and he vowed never to return until he had an invitation to play.
 
'I was miserable,' he said.
 
The formal invitation arrived in the mail shortly before Christmas, capping an amazing run for a 22-year-old player touted as the best young star on the PGA Tour.
 
At this time last year, Howell wasn't even a PGA Tour member and had to rely on sponsors' exemptions to get into tournaments. He still managed to win more than $1.5 million to earn his card and finish No. 45 in the world ranking.
 
Desperate to play in the Masters, Howell traveled halfway around the world to the Australian Open during Thanksgiving week to make sure he was in the world's top 50 at year's end.
 
Every time he played in the U.S. Amateur, he reminded himself that the finalists are invited to Augusta National. The closest he came was in 1996, when he lost to Tiger Woods in the quarterfinals as a 17-year-old.

'I walked off the green and cried,' Howell said. 'I wanted to beat him, and I wanted to be in the Masters. I've wanted to play there for so long. In my first U.S. Amateur, I was the youngest to qualify -- I was 15 -- and I still thought that year I could get in the Masters.'
 
Howell figures the Masters has been his destiny, and not just because he was born and raised in the city of golf's most famous dateline.
 
His grandfather used to get four tickets to the Masters, and Howell went for the first time in 1987. That was the year Augusta native Larry Mize beat Greg Norman in a playoff with a 140-foot chip for birdie on No. 11.
 
'The first Masters I went to and a guy from Augusta wins it. That made it even more special,' Howell said. 'Larry Mize was a god. Are you kidding? I've still got it on tape at home. It was awesome.'
 
Three years later, a member invited Howell and his father to play Augusta National. Howell parred the 18th hole to shoot 79. He was 10.
 
Howell missed the cut last week in Atlanta for the first time in 25 tournaments, the longest active streak on the PGA Tour behind Woods.
 
No matter. The Masters is here.
 
'I'm looking forward to it more than you can imagine,' he said.
 
Howell is writing a daily diary for The Augusta Chronicle, and on Monday his lead was: 'I think I can win the tournament.'
 
He certainly has all the tools.
 
Even though Howell is 5-foot-10 and as thin as a 1-iron, he is one of the biggest hitters in golf, generating enormous clubhead speed to launch drives that are high and long. Howell is eighth in total driving, a combination of distance and accuracy. In another gauge of his length, he leads the tour by making the most birdies on par 5s.
 
Putting could be what holds him back. A month ago, Howell realized his alignment was out of whack and he has been tinkering with his putter ever since.
 
As for history? That's not exactly in his favor, either.
 
The last player who won the Masters in his debut was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, the year Howell was born. Then again, Howell is hardly a rookie, having played the course just about every May with employees or caddies.
 
He figures to be one of the most popular players in the 89-man field.
 
The Chronicle is conducting a telephone poll this week for readers to pick the Masters' winner. Howell is the early leader, with a three-vote margin over Woods. Across the street from Augusta National, a convenience store used soda cans Monday to spell, 'Go Charles.'
 
'I've always joked that if I ever won the Masters, I would retire the next day,' Howell said. 'Because I don't care about anything else.'
 
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