SI Vault
Michael Bamberger
April 08, 2002
That's what Charles Howell III, the long-driving phenom, will do to the golf world if his first Tour victory comes in his hometown, Augusta
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April 08, 2002

Turn It Upside Down

That's what Charles Howell III, the long-driving phenom, will do to the golf world if his first Tour victory comes in his hometown, Augusta

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A child comes into the world not whole. Maybe the child has no windpipe. Or has lungs that won't inflate. Or has half a stomach. Charlie Howell is called in. Charles Gordon Howell Jr., chief of pediatric surgery at the Medical College of Georgia, in the heart of Augusta's worn downtown, tries to make the infant whole. Howell's motor skills are off the charts: He has the hands of a gifted athlete, a concert pianist, a Las Vegas magician. No, the surgeon—this surgeon, any surgeon—is not God. Except during those long minutes when he is standing over an anesthetized body, at work, saving a life, making a life. Then he's God. Ask the parents.

The doctor's father, the first Charles Gordon Howell, was a respected south Georgia farmer. Also a drinker and a smoker. He died at 46. The doctor's first child, Charles Gordon Howell III—Thurston to PGA Tour needlers versed in Gilligan's Island—-is the most extraordinary twentysomething golfer not named Tiger Woods. CH3 doesn't drink, never has. Of course he doesn't smoke. He is, like Woods, marathon-fit, immensely focused, smart. (They are both, it happens, college dropouts. Woods left Stanford after two years. Howell left Oklahoma State after three, but not before meeting Heather Myers, his first girlfriend, now his 21-year-old wife.) Like every child, like Woods himself, he didn't come into this world whole. Tiger had Earl. Charles had Dr. Howell. Great golfers are not simply hatched, no. They are made.

Charles Howell III was born into a family of devout Christians not quite 23 years ago in the city where his father roams the shiny halls of the new Children's Medical Center, the city where his maternal grandfather was a cotton broker, the city where Bobby Jones wintered, the city that figures in a million golf dreams. Larry Mize, Augusta-born and bred, won the 1987 Masters. Fuzzy Zoeller won the first Masters he played in, in 1979. This year CH3 will look to equal both men: win in his native city and in his first Masters.

This isn't just the Mountain Dew talking. (That's the kid's libation.) A few weeks ago somebody asked Arnold Palmer, "Won't the course changes at Augusta National play into Tiger's hands?" Palmer said, "They'll play into Charles Howell's hands."

Howell positively bombs the ball, with almost no curve to his tee shots. When he rotates his 30-inch waist on the downswing, it's a blur. Last year, at a clinic at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus asked Howell to give a driving demonstration. As Nicklaus watched the soaring shots, he shook his head. Nicklaus was the greatest driver of the wood-club era. He has never hit a tee shot the way Charles Howell does routinely.

Augusta National is a driver's course, now more than ever, and it suits Howell to his bones. He has played the course about 15 times and knows its humps, hollows, passing lanes, death traps. The first time he played it, he broke 80. He was 10. The first Masters he attended was the one Mize won, when Charles was seven and new to golf, and he's been to the toonamint, as the locals say it, most years since then. His mother's father, Ralph Hall, has had tickets since the '50s.

Only the Charles Howells, Jr. and III, seem worried that the son has played 39 Tour events since turning pro in June 2000 without winning. Everybody else who knows anything—Palmer, Johnny Miller, the Tour caddies—expects Charles to win at least once before the year is out and many, many times before his career is out. If his first win is at home, this month, the rest of the golf year will be one long CH3 watch. The boy is a 5'11", 155-pound, crewcut curiosity wearing Jesper Parnevik hand-me-downs. (The two pros wear clothes from the same designer, with the same 1974 sensibility.) When Butch Harmon bumped into CH3's spunky mother, Debbie, at a tournament recently, he said good-naturedly, "Mrs. Howell, I sure hope Charles makes a good showing at Augusta this year, because the old boys there are going to have a field day with those clothes he's wearing." Debbie laughed. What young Charles likes about his clothes is that they are unusual, as is he. There's nobody like him on the Tour.

From his mouth: "My father joined Augusta Country Club so I could play there, but it's closed Mondays, so I'd go over to Forest Hills—it's public, open every day—and I'd play all the time with these two older gentlemen, Boomer Gant and Charles Bussey, and they worked at the National, I think in the dining room or something, and they'd tell me all the old stories, and on Employees' Day they had me as their guest, and I'd come right through the front door, all legal and everything, and we had the best time." His sentences, once he gets going, are like his tee shots: in the air forever.

Howell has an exotic face, sharply angledwith narrow eyes. There's no hint of the modern Tour's affluence in him. He looks like a gangly Appalachian schoolkid in a Depression-era photograph, but he's no hillbilly. He has superb manners, he's engaging and open, and he has a mind that can go deep on anything important to him. (Don't get him started on cell phones, for they are surely, he'll tell you, the invention of Satan himself, as man was not meant to be available 24/7.) He's wealthy, but earthly possessions don't interest him. When you look carefully at his face, what you see more than anything else is desperation.

Lunch is a sandwich eaten while he stands on a practice putting green. (When he starts making 10-footers, he'll be all-world. He's now ranked 40th.) On weeks when he's not playing, reports his wife, he climbs the walls of their new house in Orlando. His father won't say if Charles is obsessive-compulsive. That's a term of psychology, and Charlie is a surgeon. He will, however, borrow from the cardiologists: "I'm type A, and I'm sure Charles is too."

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