It was a tough call but it was one that PGA Tour pro Charles Howell III felt that he had to make. After what he describes as a terrible performance at The International tournament last summer, his frustration had reached a peak. “That was pretty rough there,” he told a group of media members today as he prepared for the FBR Open in Phoenix. His play in Colorado was far removed from the form he has shown of late, posting hot finishes at the Sony Open and the Buick Invitational and putting him at the top of the 2007 FedEx Cup Standings.
Sitting in the airport waiting on a flight home to Orlando, Howell made a call that Sunday night in Denver to his coach of 16 years, David Leadbetter. The man who had guided his golf world from a pre-teen, through collegiate success, and on to the PGA Tour was in London, where it was 2 a.m., but Charles took a chance that a man he calls “Batman” for his non-existent sleep habits, would be up.
Not answering, Howell left a message, but was not surprised when the coach he says, “is like a father” to him rang him back almost immediately.
The duo had been separated as student and teacher for five months by that point, after what Howell describes as “pressing the panic button a bit.”
“I didn’t think I was getting any better,” he says of the impetus for the break-up. “I knew I was working as hard as anyone else but I wasn’t getting anywhere.” “I forgot I was just twenty six and that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
With Leadbetter removed as his coach, Howell did post a tie for 2nd in New Orleans but the lows far outweighed the highs in the months that followed. A dismal –13 score at The International, the one event where + is good, made it clear to him that he (and they) needed to get back to work.
An hour and twenty minutes of phone time to London, a few hard licks by Leadbetter (according to Howell), and some tears later the two were taking course on a new mission.
The next day Charles hit the range at Champion’s Gate, south of Orlando, where Leadbetter has his academy, and got to work.
Within a few weeks Charles would record a 2nd place at the 84 Lumber Classic and says he knew he was on the right track with his return to Leadbetter. His reaction to the press at the time was very candid. “It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend and getting back together,” Howell said. “You see what else is out there and you go back.”
As opposed to their first decade and half together, this time the effort was made to focus less on mechanics, on full swings right down to the putting stroke. Howell says he worked to smooth out his stroke, to take out ”the pop” and find a rhythm more like his tour peer David Toms. “You just never see that guy rush a stroke,” comments Howell.
It appears to be paying off as Howell has taken almost a stroke off his putts per round average though the first few events of the 2007 PGA Tour season. Even the television announcers are starting to comment on his putting stroke rather than at his prowess at hitting the long ball or his storied junior and amateur career.
Part of the change has to do with equipment as well. Howell, a self-admitted tinkerer, says he has been using the same putter since the Las Vegas event late last year. To choose his new weapon he relied on the fitting experts at his equipment sponsor Callaway and Odyssey who found a good option for him – one he is committed to. They showed him how and why it would work and he has faith in that – obviously the results prove that trust is not misdirected.
He also has a new driver in the bag this year, the Callaway FT-5, recognizing that he needs to hit more fairways. “It has a little bigger head so it is a little more stable so I can hit it straighter,” he says of the new driver that has also brought his driving average to over 300 yards a swat. He says he has also been working with a Callaway FT-I (the squarish one) driver as well but that the FT-5 was a little easier to get fit into for immediate play. He has conveyed to Callaway what he is trying to accomplish with his game and is finally looking to their people to get him the gear that can help him reach those goals. That is a big turnaround from his old approach of putting whatever clubs in the bag that felt right for the moment.
Always a range rat, Howell is still continuing that habit but now he is working on a wider variety of shots to take his game to the next level. ‘When I came out on tour I loved to hit the ball hard. Now I need to be able to hit that three quarter shot.” A fan, alongside his coach, of swing mechanics he admits he is not quite a “feel” player yet but that is getting there. His shot variety is improving, now he just has to be able to make them work under pressure. Something he has had mixed results with so far based on his poor back nine play in the final round of the Sony where he had a two stoke lead with nine holes to play.
Back home at Isleworth near Orlando, Howell practices with a player, who like him, was once vaunted as the next great thing. Of course, that friend, Tiger Woods, became just that but Howell does not appear to be deterred by his friend’s success, even when he is the immediate victim. In fact, he related that he is buoyed by Tiger’s dedication and marvels not so much at his full swing but at his ability to dial in his yardages for his irons so well. He tells of the two practicing back home, hitting 100 yards shots with a seven iron for example. “Tiger didn’t have those shots when he came out here,” says Howell. “Now he does.”
Obviously Howell is working towards having those abilities as well. As he does, the most refreshing part about him is that, like his buddy Tiger, he is willing to admit that he is still learning with every practice session and every tournament situation he faces.
Howell may be 54 PGA Tour wins behind Tiger but he knows he can’t worry about that and needs to stay focussed on what he needs to do to hit better shots, hit less poor ones, and find his way to the winner’s circle more often.
In the one race that is really important, the one to reach his true potential, he appears to be gaining fast.