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.
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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