The Jack Nicklaus era officially ended at the U.S. Open, and the hunt for the next Nicklaus ended with it. From this point on, Tiger Woods is the standard by which all golfers will be measured. "We've been waiting how many years for the next Nicklaus?" asks Mike Holder, coach of NCAA champion Oklahoma State. "Finally, it appears, Tiger is it. What are the odds of another player of that caliber coming along within three or four years of Tiger? I'd say they are astronomical."
Holder's calculations may be correct, but that won't stop any of us from beginning the search for the next Tiger. Already a threesome of youngsters—Sergio Garc�a and two Australians, Aaron Baddeley and Adam Scott—haw been discussed, and pretty much dismissed, as players capable of measuring up to Woods. Last week at the Canon Greater Hartford Open, Charles Howell, a newly minted pro from Augusta by way of Oklahoma State, became the fourth name on the list.
Like the other next Tigers, Howell, 21, is a power player, even though you wouldn't think so at first glance. He's 5'11" and 158 pounds, and while he's physically fit, he looks skinny. The braces make him appear younger than his age, too. Yet, says Casey Martin, who was paired with Howell for the first two rounds at Hartford, "He kills the ball. I see the effect Tiger has had on these kids. They are lifting. They're strong. They swing hard, but not in a crazy way. If you want to hang with you-know-who, you've got to hit it far."
Howell has played the junior and the amateur circuits for years, but his stock rose dramatically in June. Two weeks ago he came in second in a Buy.com tour event in Greensboro, the highest finish ever on that tour by an amateur. Two weeks before that Howell won the individual NCAA crown in record fashion, going 23 under par. After that runaway, with either a "yes, sir" or a "no, sir" attached to every sentence, he reiterated his intention to return to Stillwater for his senior year.
No one was terribly surprised, though, when he turned pro last week at the TPC at River Highlands. In a lot of ways he was born to play pro golf. He was raised in Augusta, the home of the Masters, a place, Howell says, where "you don't play basketball or football like kids in other towns. You grow up with golf." He got started when he was seven, after seeing a neighbor hitting plastic balls around the backyard. Little Charlie ran into the house and asked his mom, Debbie, if he could play, too. Four years later Howell had graduated to lessons with David Leadbetter. The two grew close over the ensuing 10 years, and it was Leadbetter who suggested that the time had come for Howell to turn pro.
The clincher came at the Buy.com event. The $35,200 that Howell left on the table in North Carolina would have boosted him into the race for the top 15 on that tour's money list and an exemption next year on the big Tour. Within two days he announced that he would play as a pro. "I've wanted to do this since I was seven, and I thought it was time to jump in and go for it," Howell said in Hartford, where he had been given a sponsor's exemption. "Who knows if it's the right decision?"
It looked like a pretty good one, based on his performance last week. Howell made a double bogey on his 10th hole after putting over a ridge and off the green—"A fabulous putt," he said later, sarcastically—but was one under par for the rest of the round, and on Friday birdied three holes in a row on the back nine to shoot a three-under 67 and make the cut by two shots. Howell added a pair of 68s on the weekend to come in 32nd and earn $13,627. Woods, by the way, came in 60th and won $2,544 in his Tour debut, at the '96 Greater Milwaukee Open.
Howell will need to make about $350,000 more to finish among the top 125 and avoid Q school in the fall (last week he received three more sponsors' exemptions, for the B.C. Open, the John Deere Classic and the Sprint International), but he's as close to a sure thing as you-know-who. Is it fair to compare? Of course not. When commissioner Tim Finchem stopped by last week to welcome Howell to the Tour, he said, "Good luck and play well," then added, "You'll have to."
That was a fair, and accurate, assessment. Don't hold your breath waiting for the next Tiger. Charles Howell will probably turn out to be, well, the first Charles Howell, and who knows, that may be plenty good enough.