Daily News readers knew him when

Los Angeles golf fans discovered Charles Howell III five years, almost to the day, before his Nissan Open victory Sunday. He blistered the front 9 on the Saturday in 2002. Scroll down to read my column from that coming-out party.

By Kevin Modesti
Daily News, Feb. 17, 2002

As the biggest gallery of the morning surged up the concrete walkway beside Riviera Country Club’s ninth fairway Saturday, following one of the Nissan Open’s less star-studded trios of golfers, a young man moving against traffic sounded confused.

“Why’s everybody going this way?” he muttered to a man walking with him. “There’s got to be a reason everybody’s going this direction.”

The reason was Charles Howell III.

Howell, the 22-year-old, too-good-to-be-true, 2001 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, teed off under gray skies at 8:20 a.m. By 9:30 his eagle-birdie- birdie-birdie start was the talk of Pacific Palisades. By 10:30 his 7-under-par 28 on the front nine had attained its own gravity.

The fans were pulled in from all over by the chance to witness history – a Riviera-record-breaking 60, or even a PGA Tour record-tying 59.

Alas, Howell lost his momentum at the turn. He had to settle for a best-of-the-day 64.

As a result, the fans did not get to witness history. They had to settle for seeing into the future.

If you aren’t a golf nut, you might not yet know Charles Howell III. Hearing his name, you might smirk and ask if he’s any relation to Thurston Howell III. The answer is no. Thurston is a fictional character; Charles only plays like an imaginary creature.

You will be getting to know Charles soon and you will like him.

There are a lot of promising young players on the PGA Tour, kids who figure to chase Tiger Woods through the decades ahead. None appears as heaven-sent as Howell.

Born and reared in Augusta, Ga., not far from the site of the Masters. Lean and straight as a 2-iron. Hits the ball a freeway mile. Broke 70 at age 10. NCAA champion in 1999 for Oklahoma State. A “yes, sir,” “yes, ma’am” personality.

How perfect is that?

“Twenty-eight?!” Nissan Open leader Scott McCarron exclaimed when he heard about Howell’s front nine, which tied the tournament record set by Andrew Magee in 1991. “Kids these days!”

Howell’s spectacular introduction to Los Angeles fans Saturday had a story behind it. He told it with aplomb.

“(Friday) I didn’t hit the ball well at all, probably the worst I’ve hit it all year,” he said, referring to his even-par 71. “I had dinner with Jesper Parnevik and Johan Lindeberg, the (clothes) designer. We’re talking, and, I know this is going to sound crazy, but Jesper asked me a question. He said, `You have two hotel rooms, and each person has a black box and a padlock and a key and a diamond, and you’ve got to get the diamond from one room to the other through a bellboy, but the bellboy will steal anything but the diamond. How do you get the diamond over there?’ And I started thinking about that (Saturday), and it got my mind off golf, and I went out and shot a good round.”

Howell said he still hadn’t solved the riddle. Somebody in the press tent figured out that if the bellboy will steal anything but the diamond, the answer is as simple as, “Give the diamond and the key to the bellboy and he’ll take the diamond to the other room.”

Anyway, the point is that Howell played sharp golf because he didn’t think too much about it.

He eagled the par-5 first hole, nailing a cross-handed putt from eight feet. He birdied the par-4 second from 15 feet. He birdied the par-4 third with a 20-foot chip and birdied the par-3 fourth with a 40-foot chip. Later he would birdie the par-3 sixth from 10 feet and the par-4 ninth from 12.

It might have been a 20-minute wait on the 10th tee that caused Howell to start thinking and stop threatening records.

“I wouldn’t say I started thinking about it, but I kind of lost momentum,” he said through angular features.

Howell’s pars at the short-par-4 10th and the par-5 11th assured the safety of the Riviera record, the 61 by Ted Tryba in the 1999.

“It was a decent day,” Howell said. “I know that sounds ridiculous, because of the (64), but I should have birdied 11 and 17.”

Howell’s overall momentum will not be slowed. Fifth on the PGA Tour scoring-average list, he is knocking on the door of his first professional victory.

“It’s been about like I thought it would be to get here,” said Howell, who failed to win his tour card at the 2000 qualifying school and wound up doing it by playing well in 2001 tournaments he entered through sponsors’ exemptions. “It’s been more difficult to win.”

Howell is sixth, four strokes behind McCarron, beginning the Nissan’s final round. Anyone who can shoot a 28 on the front nine can win from there.

The future could arrive as early as today.

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