- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

Howell about that!

Charles Howell III eviscerated TPC at Avenel yesterday, blazing around the 6,987-yard, par-71 layout in a tournament-record 61 strokes to claim a three-shot lead after the first day of the Booz Allen Classic.

“It was one of those funny days where everything tends to work your way, and the best thing you can do is get out of the way and just let it continue to happen,” said Howell after eclipsing David Duval’s previous tournament low of 62 in the second round last year. “Some people call it the zone or flow. … The best way to describe it is, you get a feeling that you can do nothing wrong.”

Howell, 25, has flirted with near-perfection before in his career. As a junior All-American at Oklahoma State in 2000, Howell shocked the golf world at the NCAA Championship, winning the individual title by a record nine strokes with a record four-round total of 23 under.

Already considered a can’t-miss PGA Tour prospect, Howell ascended to certain superstar status with that performance. And his first three-plus seasons on tour have been superb by most standards. He was the 2001 Rookie of the Year after playing his way on tour via sponsor’s exemptions. He earned his first victory in 2002 (Michelob Championship at Kingsmill). And last season he recorded 16 top-25 finishes and moved into the top 25 in the world rankings.

But for a player expected to push the likes of Tiger, Els, Mickelson and Singh and join the fray at the game’s highest level, the multiple victories and serious Slam Sundays simply haven’t materialized. Why? Because in spite of his tee-to-green brilliance and shot-making splendor, Howell has struggled mightily with the flatstick.

“It always seems to come down to that club,” said Howell, who entered this week ranked 155th on tour this season in putting (1.811 per hole) with only two top-10s to his credit. “The fun part about golf is hitting good shots. It’s being able to hit a high cut when you want to. It’s being able to hit a draw when you want to. It’s all of the neat things that you’re able to do with the ball when you’re playing well. But the thing that ultimately decides winners and also-rans is the putter.”

Yesterday we got a glimpse of what can happen when a brilliant ball-striker like Howell has a Goosenesque afternoon with the blade.

Like the score itself, only two shy of the tour’s all-time record (equaled three times), the statistics from Howell’s opening round are staggering. He carded nine birdies and two eagles en route to overwhelming Avenel and two opening-nine bogeys, rolling around the layout with a Goosen-like 10 one-putts. He carded eight consecutive 3s on his closing nine (Nos.2 through 9), nearly jarring a 30-footer for 60 on his final hole. And he finished the day with a field-leading 171 feet worth of made putts.

“It was definitely my best putting day, sure, no question about it,” said Howell, who couldn’t wait to get to Avenel after closing with a galling 83 in the U.S. Open. “On Sunday at Shinnecock [Hills], I three-putted six times and four-putted once. … The greens were just shocking.

“I think it’s a great idea to play the week after that. I definitely would not want to go home and think about that any longer. The Sunday night flying down here and Monday was enough. … I shot 13 over on Sunday and 10 under today. I don’t reckon I’ve ever had a 23-shot swing in two rounds of golf.”

While nobody in the 156-man field came close to matching Howell’s opening onslaught, he was far from alone in taking advantage of the soft, windless layout. All told, 76 players broke par on the defenseless track yesterday, making it one of the most stunning red-number routs in the event’s history.

“It’s a scoring paradise. There’s no wind. The course is very soft. And the greens are dynamite, in the best condition I’ve ever seen,” said Rich Beem (64), who won in wire-to-wire fashion at Avenel in 1999 when the event was known as the Kemper Open.

Beem, who missed a 3-footer for 63 at the 18th yesterday, sits tied with St. Albans School graduate Olin Browne three behind Howell on an impressive leader board that also features world No.15 Adam Scott (66) and majors champions Jeff Sluman (65) and Tom Lehman (66).

“I love coming back here,” said Beem, who hopes Avenel is the antidote for an extended slump that includes 10 missed cuts in 16 starts this season and no victories since the 2002 PGA Championship. “I guess it’s just the simple fact that I won here the first time I ever saw it. … We get to this place, and I just start licking my chops. Heck, I wish we played here every week.”

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