The numbers: 4,292 days and more than 11 years. It was 2007 and the first “Transformers” movie debuted. Harry Potter recently reached puberty. That’s how long it’s been since Charles Howell III last lifted a trophy on TOUR. But here he was on Sunday,winning The RSM Classic on the second playoffhole against Patrick Rodgers. The victory at Sea Island, Georgia, earned the veteran a two-year exemption, an entry into THE PLAYERS as well as the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January. “It’s a wonderful lesson to be learned that if you truly believe in what you’re doing, to stay the course,” Howell III said.
Charles Howell III knew what you were thinking when that drive went into the water right of Sea Island’s second fairway. He was thinking the same thing.
He thought he’d blown it again. His chances of winning were over. Another Sunday would end in frustration, not elation.
“I just honestly thought I had shot myself in the foot again,” Howell said.
He started The RSM Classic’s final round with a one-shot lead. It was the sixth 54-hole lead of his career. He’d lost the previous five, another frustrating statistic in a career defined by what he hasn’t achieved.
Howell trailed by three shots when he arrived at the third tee.
“Sometimes you wonder, well, maybe you just don’t have it in you,” he said. “Maybe today is just not the day. More than likely I won’t be winning the golf tournament.”
Howell has heard all of the criticisms levied against his long and consistent career. He’s brought the same charges against himself.
Sunday was different, though. He proved his harshest critic – himself – wrong.
The 39-year-old won his third PGA TOUR title with an unprecedented performance. He summoned his best golf at the most important moment. Now he will take the FedExCup lead into the New Year.
“I thought I had it in me, but I had never seen me do it,” Howell said. “It’s kind of like the guy who thinks he can dunk, but if you can’t dunk, you just can’t do it.”
The comeback began quietly, with birdies at Nos. 5 and 6. Then he started the back nine with another birdie. But with a jammed leaderboard on a low-scoring day, he would need more than the occasional birdie.
He two-putted the par-5 15th for birdie. Then he holed an 18-footer birdie on 16. He hit his tee shot to 5 feet on the par-3 17th.
Two groups ahead, Patrick Rodgers birdied the 18th hole to go a shot ahead. Howell knew he needed to make his putt if he wanted to win. He did.
His work wasn’t over, though. His birdie putt on 18 missed by the smallest of margins. He fell to his knees and dropped his putter in despair.
“I thought, man, I’ve seen this movie before and I know how it ends,” he said. Last year, he barely missed a birdie putt on the final hole of the Quicken Loans National, then lost a playoff to Kyle Stanley.
After watching Rodgers miss a birdie putt on The RSM’s first playoff hole, Howell barely missed a 15-footer from the fringe for the win.
Rodgers putted first on the second playoff hole. He missed again. This time, Howell poured in his 15-footer. Overwhelmed with relief, he sank to the ground and grabbed his face with his hands.
“Quite honestly, I didn’t know if I would ever win one again,” Howell said. “I had come up short so many times.”
Howell has been a pro for nearly two decades. He’s won more than $35 million. He’s never lost his card and he’s qualified for every edition of the FedExCup Playoffs.
He is known more for what he hasn’t accomplished, though. He has played 529 PGA TOUR events. Only two men needed more starts before winning for the third time. He has 16 runner-up finishes on TOUR. He’s finished third nine times.
“Playing with a lead isn’t one thing I’ve really done a whole lot of. I could talk to you about finishing second or third a lot,” he said Friday after shooting consecutive 64s.
His first win came at an event that no longer exists. His second win was more than a decade ago. The standards were high when he turned pro after a dominant win at the NCAA Championship. He finished third in his third PGA TOUR start as a pro.
Few players can match Howell’s fascination with the game, though. He recently was investigating the discrepancy between his two launch monitors, calling the two manufacturers for answers.
His college roommate, Web.com Tour player Edward Loar, remembers Howell leaving the house on Saturday to practice while his teammates watched college football. He could be found at Bodyworks, the Stillwater gym where the Oklahoma State team trained, on Friday nights.
The Cowboys’ coach, Mike Holder, gave the team 100 practice balls for the year. Players had to run for every lost ball.
“The only thing that would interrupt Charles is that we had to shag our own balls,” Loar said. “He was just getting warmed up and he had to go shag. Most guys would just hit wedges because they didn’t want to walk that far or were afraid to lose them.”
Howell said he’d work in finance if he wasn’t a golfer. He’s enthralled with data. His analytical nature can be his biggest downfall – “I’ve often thought one of my flaws is I enjoy practicing and preparing more than playing,” he said – but also the source of solace in the long years between wins.
“I always go back to, okay, how do I improve, how do I get better, what do I need to work on,” Howell said. “That’s the part I really, really enjoy.”
And that’s what means the most to Howell after his long-awaited win.
“The things that I’ve been working on and practicing held up. In the playoff, I was able to hit nice drives off that tee in a left-to-right crosswind,” he said. “I was able to hit a nice 8-iron on 17 in regulation to make birdie.
“That bit means more to me than beating somebody.”
Howell did that Sunday. More importantly, he learned something about himself.
Winning was worth the wait.