- Jason Sobel, Senior Golf Writer
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Most professional golfers have had their eye on Augusta National from a very young age. Charles Howell III is no different -- except he literally had his eye on the famed course.
As an Augusta, Ga., native and member of Augusta Country Club (which is adjacent to Amen Corner) during his formative years, Howell has never minced words about how important the Masters is to him.
The good news? Based on a few distinctions, he's already in the field. The bad news: In six career starts at his hometown major, Howell has never finished better than T-13.
Howell sat down on the Hot Seat to discuss exactly how much the Masters means to him, plus why it took so long to get back into the winner's circle.
Q: You were the AJGA Player of the Year as a junior player and NCAA champion at Oklahoma State. How much pressure was there on you after turning pro in 2000?
A: Well, there were a lot of expectations. And expectations, I've always felt, are good, simply because it means people think you can play and you have a chance to do it. So that led to some pressure. It was also during the start, if you will, of the Tiger Era, so people were desperate to see someone come up and challenge him. Truthfully, though, the biggest pressure was getting a job, finding a way to somehow get a tour card.
Q: Was there more self-induced pressure or did it come from other places?
A: Oh, much more self-induced. As long as there's more self-induced than from elsewhere, then you're OK. You know, people expect a lot of college kids to do great things out on tour; they forget they've got to get out there first. So the first part was to establish a place to play on the PGA Tour.
Q: Your first PGA Tour win came at Kingsmill in 2002; your second win didn't come until five years later. In the time between those two victories, you finished runner-up nine times. How many helped build your confidence and how many hurt it?
A: Most of them helped it. The one that I can point to that hurt it was a playoff loss to Mike Weir in 2003 at Riviera. I had a lead playing the back nine. I lost the lead and then lost the playoff. That one hurt the confidence a bit, because it was at a time in my career when I won at the end of '02 and I would have won at the beginning of '03. I would have put two wins together pretty quickly. In a way, I would have been off and running, if you will, but lost that one. Most all of them helped me to gain confidence, but that one hurt.
Q: I remember you telling me that last year's Sony hurt, too.
A: Oh, yeah, it did. That was going to be the second one that I pointed to. Once again, I had the lead with nine holes to go. It was a case where you want to put yourself in position to win, but when you have a lead with nine to go, it does not feel good to lose the lead. You know, if you're one back or so with nine to go, it's another thing. But to have a lead with nine to go, you don't want to lose it.
Q: Any idea why it took so long to win the second one? It wasn't like you were playing badly.
A: A combination of the right things happening at the right time. If you look for a physical part of my game, it was a little bit of the short game, the scoring. With that last round on Sunday, no one is going to hit all perfect shots. You've got to have a really good short game to save some shots here and there and that was the one thing that I pointed my finger at and I'm still spending a lot of time improving.
Q: What did the win at Riviera last year, coming from behind to beat Phil Mickelson in a playoff, mean to you?
A: It was a huge relief. As we just chatted about, nine runner-up finishes, so to finally get another win after all that, there's a huge relief. A lot of times when people win, they can draw on the past experience of winning, but the gap was so long between my wins that I didn't feel like I had just done it recently. I felt like I was trying to win for the first time. So yeah, it was more of a relief than anything.
Q: It's funny, most players, after they win, talk about how happy they were. You're talking about how relieved you were. Did the relief really supersede the happiness?
A: No question about it. There was more happiness the first time. It was a relief the second time.
Q: Are you really 5-foot-11, 155 pounds?
A: Actually, 158. I have a digital scale.
Q: I know you're a fitness buff, but you haven't picked up on Tiger's weightlifting regimen yet, huh?
A: Well, I do lift a lot and I do work out a lot, but I haven't picked up Tiger's results yet, if you will.
Q: You've spent a lot of time with Woods over the years. Tell me something about him off the course that most people don't know.
A: He's a normal guy. He likes all the normal stuff -- likes going out to the movies, likes going out to dinner. Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, people like that get blown up like they're bigger than life, but people forget that he's a normal guy. He has a wife, he has a kid. And yeah, he likes the same things everyone else does.
Q: How often do you hang out with him off the course?
A: It varies. Ever since he had Sam, it's obviously been a bit less, because he's a father now and has other priorities. But we go to the movies occasionally, go out to dinner occasionally. He's got a great family life now, though.
Q: He says the past six months is the best stretch of golf he's ever played. Do you agree?
A: I do, yeah. People don't even talk about how much he's winning anymore. It's almost like we've all come to expect Tiger Woods to win all of the tournaments that he's winning, and you forget what a great thing that it really is that he's doing. I think that's the thing. We forget how great Tiger Woods really is. So, without a doubt, this has been some of his best golf.
Q: If you had to give a prediction on majors and overall wins for Tiger this year, what would you say?
A: I'd say two majors and eight overall wins.
Q: Is all the Grand Slam talk premature, considering we haven't even gotten to Augusta yet?
A: Nowadays, we have an impatient society. So, no, it's not premature in the fact that people always want to talk about what's next. But as far as who you're talking about, it's hard to bet against him.
Q: One last Tiger question: When his name is on the leaderboard, does that intimidate other players? Demoralize them?
A: No, I think it excites most players, because they know they'd better get going. If anything, it excites the guy and revs the guy up. If your name is in front of his, then you know you'd better play. If your name is behind his, you know you'd better really play to catch him.
Q: Obviously, growing up in Augusta, the Masters means a lot to you. Can you put into words your thoughts about the tournament?
A: It's the only tournament that, in my mind, is almost bigger than golf. There's a history there and there's a tradition there. It's one of the only tournaments in the world where even the average golf fan knows holes on that golf course. People know what No. 12 is, they know what 13 is, they know what 15 is. I think that's awesome. It's the only major that's played on the same course every year, which I think is special. There are a lot of great things about it that make it more than just another golf tournament.
Q: What did you think about how the course played last year, when Zach Johnson won with a score over par?
A: I think the weather had a lot to do with it. That's the one thing people aren't talking about. It was really cold and windy early in the week and that was a factor. I mean, no one wants to see over par win the Masters. No one. I don't even think Augusta National does. Everybody wants to see the exciting back-nine finish. So yeah, I think the weather had more of a determining factor than golf course setup.
Q: You've gone as far as saying, "If I win the Masters, I'll retire the next day, because that's all I want to do." Sticking by that claim?
A: Well, it was said in jest, but the meaning behind it was, that's how much this golf tournament means to me. Growing up as a kid, my motivating factor every April was the Masters -- and not just for me but for every junior golfer in Augusta. The Masters was what excited every junior golfer, every kid, to play. That said, to someone growing up in Augusta, the Masters takes on a little different meaning.
Q: Well, you can't retire anyway, because you'd have to at least come back every year.
A: Right. I could at least come back and hit the ceremonial first tee shot. [Laughs] But I might be too young to do that.
Q: Have you ever snuck a peek inside the champions' locker room?
A: Yes, but not during tournament week. During a nontournament week, when I was just out there playing? Absolutely. I'm not missing that.
Q: Describe the scene in there. How cool is it?
A: You know, the coolest part of it is when you think about the guys who were there, you think about the guys whose lockers are there currently and you think about all the different ways they won the tournament. You think back to all the great Masters champions and how they got there. It's unbelievable. I mean, it's probably sacrilegious that I even walked in there, but it's truly amazing.
Q: Two Presidents Cup teams, but no Ryder Cup. Where does that rank on your list of goals this season?
A: No. 1, without a doubt. I want to play the Ryder Cup more than anything, for a couple of reasons. The fact that it's in America and then the fact that Paul Azinger is the captain. I love Paul Azinger. He's got a ton of energy and excitement and I just think he's going to be a great captain. And to play it in America would be even better.
Q: I know everyone, everywhere, has taken their shots at this, but can you explain why the U.S. hasn't won since '99?
A: One word: golf. It has nothing to do with camaraderie, nothing to do with anything more than the fact that, unfortunately, we play golf. And as much as guys practice and prepare and want to get better, at the end of the day, it's a sport. So that's my explanation.
Q: We've talked about this before and you had some very strong feelings on the subject. What are your thoughts on the future of American golf?
A: I think American golf is in good hands. When you look at it overall, America has produced the best golfer ever in Tiger Woods. On top of that, you look at the players now -- Anthony Kim, the rookie Dustin Johnson, Sean O'Hair, Ryan Moore, J.B. Holmes, who's now won twice -- and I think American golf is as strong as it's ever been. A lot of the American kids have grown up, they've played Division I college, which is competitive, and then a lot of them come right out to the PGA Tour, which is obviously the top tour in the world, so it's a tough scale to judge on. But I still believe that American golf is in great shape going forward.
Q: You've been around for a while, but you're just 28 years old. Are you still a young guy or have you become a grizzled veteran? Or somewhere in between?
A: Well, it's funny. [Recently] in Phoenix, for the first time ever in a threesome, I was the oldest man in the group. I've never done that before. [The other two players were O'Hair and Hunter Mahan.] But I'm right in between the two. I'm definitely not a young gun anymore; this is my eighth season. But at the same time, I'm also not a veteran who's been out here for 15 years, won 10 golf tournaments and all that. When I think of a veteran, I think of someone like Mark Calcavecchia. I'm kind of in the middle.
Q: Have you hit your golfing prime yet?
A: Oh, no. Not even close. I still think that golfers peak in their mid-30s. A lot of that has to do with learning the golf courses that we play, learning how to manage yourself, how to manage your time, what works best for you. It's getting your life stable off of the golf course. There are a lot of factors that go into that and historically most golfers peak in their mid-30s.
Q: What are your expectations for yourself once you do hit that prime?
A: Well, obviously my expectations now are to get in contention on Sundays on a more consistent basis than I have. And then, hopefully, to be able to go win majors. That's the goal. That's what we all play for. At the end of the day, the competition isn't getting any easier and there's no more of a fulfilling tournament in the world to win than a major. So those are my expectations. There's a lot of hard work ahead, but I enjoy that part, as well.
Q: Charles Howell, you are off the ESPN.com Hot Seat.
Jason Sobel is ESPN.com's golf editor. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com
Howell sat down on the Hot Seat to discuss exactly how much the Masters means to him and why it took so long to get back into the winner's circle.