The last 25 years have taught Charles Howell that the Masters Tournament is best not played through the eyes of a 7-year-old boy.
“In a bad way the first Masters I came to Larry Mize won, so I thought everybody from Augusta won it,” said the native Augustan of his seminal moment in 1987. “I was 7. I saw there was no rough out here, so how could you miss a shot? I saw the greens were perfect, so how do you miss a putt?”
Now 32 and playing in his eighth Masters, Howell’s eyes are wide open and he’s learned the value of patience. Friday’s flawless second round 70 lifted Howell into contention heading into the weekend tied for 12th just three shots off the lead.
“Maybe I’ve watched too many Masters highlights of everything that can go bad on every hole,” Howell said. “I played very conservative, especially early. Pars were just fine with me. It’s difficult and it takes a lot of patience and you’re not going to have a lot of bogey-free rounds at Augusta National. I’d have been happy with even par. I’d have been happy with 1-over. For sure.”
Playing through the chilly and breezy morning, Howell played steady golf to tie his career low in 24 Masters rounds. He made 17 pars and a surgical eagle on the 15th hole. He got up and down when he needed to, including the 18th with a curling chip to 4 feet to save par on a hole neither of his playing partners, including co-leader Jason Dufner, could handle.
“We’ve seen two of the four seasons so far this week,” Howell said.
Howell’s day went up a notch at the par-5 15th when he striped a driver and 4-iron from 212 yards to within 8 feet of the hole. He sank the eagle putt to earn his first piece of Masters crystal.
“It felt like 15 or 20 feet because when you’re trying to get crystal it’s a big deal,” he said.
At 2-under par, Howell is in the same position he was in 2004 when he shot 71-71 and was tied for sixth entering the weekend. He played Saturday’s round with eventual champion Phil Mickelson.
“That was Phil’s first win and I played with him on Saturday,” Howell said. “I saw how good he was playing and how smart he was playing and I learned a lot from that.”
Howell was in contention through 36 holes in 2003 as well, tied for 10th at 1-over. But in both 2003 and ’04, Howell shot 76 on Saturday to fall off the pace. He finished 28th and 13th respectively.
“It’s a hard golf course,” Howell said. “It’s set up right on the edge of playable but very difficult, and it’s hard to ever feel really comfortable here. You know, I know some players like Mickelson, I’ve heard him say a lot of times he feels great and really comfortable every time he gets to Augusta. But it’s a place I’ve never been 100 percent at ease with yet.”
With a quality leaderboard in front of him, Howell isn’t changing anything strategically in the third round except perhaps praying a little more on the eve of Easter. He understands that you can hit bad shots, miss putts and not all Augustans are guaranteed to put on a green jacket.
“It’s still a really hard golf course, and pars are still good scores,” he said.