A child comes into the world not whole. Maybe the child has no
windpipe. Or has lungs that won't inflate. Or has half a
stomach. Charlie Howell is called in. Charles Gordon Howell Jr.,
chief of pediatric surgery at the Medical College of Georgia, in
the heart of Augusta's worn downtown, tries to make the infant
whole. Howell's motor skills are off the charts: He has the
hands of a gifted athlete, a concert pianist, a Las Vegas
magician. No, the surgeon--this surgeon, any surgeon--is not
God. Except during those long minutes when he is standing over
an anesthetized body, at work, saving a life, making a life.
Then he's God. Ask the parents.
The doctor's father, the first Charles Gordon Howell, was a
respected south Georgia farmer. Also a drinker and a smoker. He
died at 46. The doctor's first child, Charles Gordon Howell
III--Thurston to PGA Tour needlers versed in Gilligan's
Island--is the most extraordinary twentysomething golfer not
named Tiger Woods. CH3 doesn't drink, never has. Of course he
doesn't smoke. He is, like Woods, marathon-fit, immensely
focused, smart. (They are both, it happens, college dropouts.
Woods left Stanford after two years. Howell left Oklahoma State
after three, but not before meeting Heather Myers, his first
girlfriend, now his 21-year-old wife.) Like every child, like
Woods himself, he didn't come into this world whole. Tiger had
Earl. Charles had Dr. Howell. Great golfers are not simply
hatched, no. They are made.
Charles Howell III was born into a family of devout Christians
not quite 23 years ago in the city where his father roams the
shiny halls of the new Children's Medical Center, the city where
his maternal grandfather was a cotton broker, the city where
Bobby Jones wintered, the city that figures in a million golf
dreams. Larry Mize, Augusta-born and bred, won the 1987 Masters.
Fuzzy Zoeller won the first Masters he played in, in 1979. This
year CH3 will look to equal both men: win in his native city and
in his first Masters.
This isn't just the Mountain Dew talking. (That's the kid's
libation.) A few weeks ago somebody asked Arnold Palmer, "Won't
the course changes at Augusta National play into Tiger's hands?"
Palmer said, "They'll play into Charles Howell's hands."
April 7, 2002
Howell positively bombs the ball, with almost no curve to his tee
shots. When he rotates his 30-inch waist on the downswing, it's a
blur. Last year, at a clinic at the Memorial, Jack Nicklaus asked
Howell to give a driving demonstration. As Nicklaus watched the
soaring shots, he shook his head. Nicklaus was the greatest
driver of the wood-club era. He has never hit a tee shot the way
Charles Howell does routinely.
Augusta National is a driver's course, now more than ever, and it
suits Howell to his bones. He has played the course about 15
times and knows its humps, hollows, passing lanes, death traps.
The first time he played it, he broke 80. He was 10. The first
Masters he attended was the one Mize won, when Charles was seven
and new to golf, and he's been to the toonamint, as the locals
say it, most years since then. His mother's father, Ralph Hall,
has had tickets since the '50s.
Only the Charles Howells, Jr. and III, seem worried that the son
has played 39 Tour events since turning pro in June 2000 without
winning. Everybody else who knows anything--Palmer, Johnny
Miller, the Tour caddies--expects Charles to win at least once
before the year is out and many, many times before his career is
out. If his first win is at home, this month, the rest of the
golf year will be one long CH3 watch. The boy is a 5'11",
155-pound, crewcut curiosity wearing Jesper Parnevik
hand-me-downs. (The two pros wear clothes from the same
designer, with the same 1974 sensibility.) When Butch Harmon
bumped into CH3's spunky mother, Debbie, at a tournament
recently, he said good-naturedly, "Mrs. Howell, I sure hope
Charles makes a good showing at Augusta this year, because the
old boys there are going to have a field day with those clothes
he's wearing." Debbie laughed. What young Charles likes about
his clothes is that they are unusual, as is he. There's nobody
like him on the Tour.
From his mouth: "My father joined Augusta Country Club so I
could play there, but it's closed Mondays, so I'd go over to
Forest Hills--it's public, open every day--and I'd play all the
time with these two older gentlemen, Boomer Gant and Charles
Bussey, and they worked at the National, I think in the dining
room or something, and they'd tell me all the old stories, and
on Employees' Day they had me as their guest, and I'd come right
through the front door, all legal and everything, and we had the
best time." His sentences, once he gets going, are like his tee
shots: in the air forever.
Howell has an exotic face, sharply angled, with narrow eyes.
There's no hint of the modern Tour's affluence in him. He looks
like a gangly Appalachian schoolkid in a Depression-era
photograph, but he's no hillbilly. He has superb manners, he's
engaging and open, and he has a mind that can go deep on anything
important to him. (Don't get him started on cell phones, for they
are surely, he'll tell you, the invention of Satan himself, as
man was not meant to be available 24/7.) He's wealthy, but
earthly possessions don't interest him. When you look carefully
at his face, what you see more than anything else is desperation.
Lunch is a sandwich eaten while he stands on a practice putting
green. (When he starts making 10-footers, he'll be all-world.
He's now ranked 40th.) On weeks when he's not playing, reports
his wife, he climbs the walls of their new house in Orlando. His
father won't say if Charles is obsessive-compulsive. That's a
term of psychology, and Charlie is a surgeon. He will, however,
borrow from the cardiologists: "I'm type A, and I'm sure Charles
The father took up golf only to further the deep interest of his
prodigy son, who stumbled on the game when he saw a neighbor
playing backyard Wiffle-ball golf. Charlie has no use for the
old-world Augusta social scene. He joined the city's foremost
country club for Charles, who was then 10. "I knew he would have
to know how to putt bentgrass greens if he was going to advance
in the game, and Augusta Country Club was one of the few courses
around home with bentgrass greens," Charlie says.
He's asked, "After four years around the game, you had enough
golfing sophistication to understand the importance of learning
to putt on bentgrass greens?"
"Are you kidding me?" he responds. "I've made a study of this
game. There isn't much I don't know."
Ten years ago, when Charles was 12, the Howell family started
making monthly car trips to Orlando for him to take lessons from
David Leadbetter, the holistic golf teacher. (He monitors his
pupils' swings, mental states, workouts, fiber intakes.) The
drive took about seven hours, with Charlie and Debbie in the
front of their Chevy Suburban and Charles and his brother, Ben,
four years younger, in the back. In Orlando, Charlie and Charles
would spend the days on the lesson tee. Debbie, a registered
nurse not now working, and Ben, now a college freshman and not a
golfer, would be on water slides and roller coasters. The two
Charles Howells would watch as Leadbetter worked with Nick
Faldo, Greg Norman, Nick Price, Ty Tryon. The Charles Howells
were human VCRs. "David became like a second father to Charles,"
says Charlie. It takes a confident father to make room for a
During a practice round at Bay Hill last month, Leadbetter caught
up with Charles on the 13th hole, a short par-4. Two days earlier
Leadbetter had persuaded Howell to try a new body-massage machine
imported from France and known by its code name, S-Six. This is
how they greeted each other.
CH: "That machine is unbelievable."
DL: "You look loose."
CH: "I'm telling you."
DL: "What'd you hit off the tee here?"
CH: "That new two-iron."
DL: "Like it?"
CH: "Love it. You know how good that club's going to be at
The Howell family's loyalty to Leadbetter played a role in
Charles's firing of his former manager, Rocky Hambric. Last year
Hambric negotiated a deal with Golf Magazine for Howell to become
a playing editor. (Golf and SI are both owned by AOL Time
Warner.) When Leadbetter learned of the agreement, he was
disappointed. He's on the staff of Golf Digest, a competing
monthly. He told the Howells it was awkward for him to be at one
magazine and have one of his star pupils at another. The Howells
had been with Leadbetter for a decade and with Hambric for less
than three years. They wanted to appease Leadbetter, which put
them at odds with Hambric, and the manager was out. Hambric
responded with a suit against Charles, charging him with wrongful
termination and breach of contract. Charles countersued. The
suits are still pending. Howell is now with IMG, which also
One reason the Tour caddies are so impressed by Howell is his
work ethic. It's not just how much he practices but also how
intelligently he practices. The master of this, of course, is
Woods. Last year at the Western Open, Howell was at the back of
the range at Cog Hill, chipping and pitching and hitting bunker
shots, when another golfer arrived. Howell looked up. There was
"I see you're working hard," Woods said.
"I've got to work hard to be out here," Howell replied. Woods is
where Howell wants to be. Howell's goal is to be the best player
in the world.
"Yeah," said Woods. "It takes hard work."
"It reaffirmed everything I believe," Howell says. "Tiger was
saying, 'It's right there in the dirt. Go find it.'"
When Charles is practicing, Charlie is frequently nearby. The
father gets to as many of the son's tournaments as his work
allows. After the first round at Bay Hill last month, the two
Charleses went straight to the practice green, where they were
met by Leadbetter and an associate of his unfamiliar to Charlie.
The man's PGA Tour neck tag identified him as DR. ROBERT WINTERS.
He had a weather forecaster's hairdo, and his color coordination
was too perfect, and by body language you could see that Charlie
was skeptical of him. Any number of people had tried to get
Charles to make more 10-footers, none of them successfully.
After about 20 minutes, Charlie went over to Debbie. "Well, he
says Charles is right-eye dominant and he's not using his right
eye enough when he's standing over his putts, so that's a good
thing," he said. "But I'd sure like to know what he's a doctor
of. I asked him, and I still don't know." Charlie Howell knows
that putting illnesses aren't cured in 20-minute consultations.
Charlie and Debbie aren't easy to please. When they follow
Charles on the golf course, they walk separately, but they say
much the same thing. The son leaves an easy uphill chip short,
and the mother says, "That was poor." The father watches an
approach shot drift into a bunker and shakes his head. There are
parents today who wear out the phrase "good job." The Howells are
not among them. At Bay Hill, Charles played the first two rounds
with veteran Dan Forsman. During the second round Forsman's
caddie, Greg Martin, walked up to Charlie and said, "You've done
a real fine job raising your boy. He's a gentleman."
"Thank you," the father said politely, without breaking stride or
making any effort to extend the conversation. He wasn't going to
milk the caddie's kind words.
Every so often Debbie will tell Charles, "Just don't ever forget
where you came from or how you got to where you are."
"Yes, Mama," he says. His father nods.
For the Charles Howells, Jr. and III, golf isn't just fun and
games or a way to make money. "My job is to help him be the best
golfer he can be, because that's what he wants," Charlie says.
He knows that every child needs something to make his life
whole. The father gave golf to his first-born child, as surely
as God Almighty Himself gave him two working lungs with which to
"I've made a study of this game," says the father, who took up
golf solely for his son's sake. "There isn't much I don't know."
"He became like a second father to Charles," Charlie Howell says
of Leadbetter. It takes a confident father to make room for a
Howell positively bombs the ball, with almost no curve to his
tee shots. When he rotates his 30-inch waist on the downswing,
it's a blur.