- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 11, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. The entire golf world seems smitten by the Masters' native son.
Forget Tiger Woods. The oddsmakers might have installed the world's No. 1 as the favorite at this week's 66th Masters, but local product Charles Howell III is by far the most popular player on the property.
"I played with him yesterday, and it was wild," said Spanish sensation Sergio Garcia, Howell's closest friend on Tour. "It seemed like everyone out there was following us, and they never stopped yelling for Charles. They cheered his practice swings."
It's easy to root for the 22-year-old Howell, who is attempting to become the first Masters rookie to make off with the green jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller (1979). He has all the necessary components of superstardom talent, confidence, style, grace, wit and perhaps most magnetic of all youthful exuberance.
"To somebody else, the greatest place in the world might be Disney World. But this is the greatest place in the world to me right here," said Howell, who hasn't stopped smiling since he drove up Magnolia Lane last Saturday. "I still say that if I win the Masters, I'll retire the next day because that's all I want to do. To wear a [green jacket], I would give anything, I promise you. And I think that comes from growing up in Augusta, I really do."
Howell, who has five top-20 finishes so far this year in his first full season on Tour, grew up playing at Augusta Country Club, a course separated from Amen Corner by nothing but a subtle green screen. But over the years, Howell managed to finagle his way into a fair number of loops on the legendary lady next door.
"A few times I played on Employee Day, which is a day in May I believe is still going on where certain employees and volunteers can come out and play. There's a select few employees that can invite a guest, and I was invited a few times," explained Howell, who took up golf in earnest after watching hometown hero Larry Mize win the Masters in 1987 and broke par at Augusta National for the first time at 15. "On Employee Day, you get carts, so we would try to play 54 holes. We got here as early as we could and went round and round. I could not wake up at 7:30 to go to school, but I could get up at 5:30 to come play here."
Once Howell became a standout at Oklahoma State, winning the NCAA individual title by a record eight shots as a junior in 2000, he began receiving invites from local members. Including this week's practice rounds, Howell estimates he has played Augusta National 20 times. Perhaps that wealth of experience is why he has the temerity to consider himself a legitimate contender this week.
"I really do think that I can win the golf tournament," said Howell on Tuesday. "I don't say that to be cocky or to stick my foot in my mouth. I have to think that way. If I get on the first tee on Thursday and I think I can't win the tournament, don't have a chance, then I can guarantee you I'm not going to win it."
If that sounds a bit precocious, consider the fact that Woods was saying exactly the same thing several years ago. Some snickered then, but nobody is laughing six major titles later. And actually, Howell is the antithesis of arrogant, routinely endearing himself to fans and media alike with his self-deprecating wit.
A self-described golf "geek," Howell never had a serious girlfriend until he met his wife Heather at Oklahoma State.
"I had 14 good friends in high school and they all fit in my golf bag. For a while I had a girlfriend and her name was Big Bertha," said Howell, reeling off one-liners. "I can be the poster boy for the high school geek. I never ran with the in crowd, but that never even bothered me. I never felt like I was missing anything. I guess that's part of being a geek. For me, it was all about golf. That's all I really cared about. I always just wanted to be the best golfer in the world."
Howell, currently ranked No. 40 in the world, has a long way to go before he attains that goal. After all, he's still never won a title on Tour. But after playing with him on Tuesday, Greg Norman was blown away by Howell's skills and certain of his eventual success.
"Charlie Howell will break through, and when he breaks through, look out," said Norman. "I can't believe how far the guy can hit the golf ball with his size. I mean, he just hits it out there 340 or 350 yards quite effortlessly, actually. And that is a magnificent effort to be able to do that when you're 145 pounds wringing wet. The guy has to run around the shower to get wet. There's always the next great thing in this game, but Charles Howell is special he's got the goods."
Howell also has a strange bit of recent history on his side this week. At each of the last three Masters, a first-timer has either led or shared the lead after the opening round. Though none of the three (Brandel Chamblee, Dennis Paulson and Chris DiMarco) went on to win the event, DiMarco was a factor until late Sunday morning, eventually finishing tied for 10th.
"Let's put it this way, Charles Howell knows a lot more about this golf course than I did last year," said DiMarco yesterday. "It wouldn't surprise me at all to see his name on that leader board all week."
Perhaps Howell's primary obstacle to contention is the draining effect of the extraordinary amount of attention he has received already this week.
"I thought it was going to wear me out, but honestly, I'm loving every minute of it," said Howell, who claims he feels very little external pressure. "The burden of expectation, so to speak, isn't really there. Everybody's excited for me. But deep down, I doubt if anyone really expects me to do much. But I have certain expectations of myself. And since I was a little kid the greatest of those expectations has involved this place, Sunday afternoon and the ultimate addition to any golfer's wardrobe."

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