Howell's Masters streak might be over
ORLANDO -- When your career body of work consists of winning two professional golf tournaments, the idea that you will capture one of the next two does not seem very likely.
But that is what Charles Howell III faces if he wants to return to his hometown major championship in two weeks.
The Augusta, Ga., native who now lives in Orlando has not secured an invitation for his favorite tournament, the Masters, after seven straight appearances.
A great opportunity was missed Sunday at the Transitions Championship, where Howell bogeyed two of the last four holes to finish second by one stroke to winner Retief Goosen.
It was Howell's 11th career runner-up finish, to go with his two PGA Tour victories, but nonetheless boosted him back into the top 100 in the Official World Golf Rankings at 97th after he had fallen to a career-worst 145th earlier this month.
This is the same guy who came to the PGA Tour with so much fanfare out of Oklahoma State and was named the top player in the world age 25 and younger in a 2005 Sports Illustrated poll, beating out such golfers as Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia.
Howell, 29, is not held in such high esteem today, and Sunday's near-miss only heightened the anxiety as a victory would have meant an automatic invitation to the Masters.
"The golf tournament means more to me than anything," said Howell, whose best finish at Augusta is a tie for 13th in 2004. "That's maybe why I haven't played as well as I would have liked to. But frankly, it's just hard to get that out of your head; that it is Augusta. So everybody's nervous there. Everybody's on edge. The golf course can make you look great or look like an absolute idiot, but I love it. And I think everybody in golf loves it.
"I don't think there's a professional golfer in the world that wouldn't like to play that golf tournament."
Howell finds himself in this predicament because he had a so-so year in 2008; he missed the cut in three of the four major championships, failed to qualify for the Tour Championship and was not among the top 50 in the world at the end of the year. The latter two would have punched a ticket to the Masters.
Short of being among the top 50 by Monday -- the cutoff for the world ranking -- the only thing left for Howell to do is win this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational or at next week's Shell Houston Open.
And that's what makes Sunday's finish so tough. Howell had fought his way into contention on the back nine at Innisbrook with birdies on the 11th, 12th and 14th holes to tie Goosen. The four finishing holes are among the toughest on tour, and there is no shame in bogeying any of them. But Howell laments the par-3 15th, where he missed the green with a 7-iron and made a bogey. He bogeyed the next hole, too, but so did Goosen.
The week prior in Puerto Rico -- Howell was not eligible for the World Golf Championship event at Doral -- he was in contention heading into the third round but shot 78. "That was a quiet night in the hotel room there," said Howell, who rebounded with a 66 the next day, then played the Tavistock Cup exhibition, where the second day he was Tiger Woods' partner.
"It was just kind of nice to pick myself back up from that day in Puerto Rico where I did not play well at all," he said.
Now he's got two chances left to get to Augusta and nothing short of a victory will get it done.
"That's probably my biggest disappointment is not being in that tournament," Howell said. "I've given it a run. I've played a lot of tournaments. I've played a lot of golf this year. I'm going to play the next two and work my tail off to try to do it."
And if he doesn't make it?
"I'll watch every second of it, because I think it's great," he said. "I wouldn't miss it."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
ROAD TO AUGUSTA
The elite in golf know how they are judged: By major victories. As we approach the year's first major on April 9, ESPN.com will share stories that bring to light the exceptional importance of these special tournaments.