Howell off to another strong start

Friday, November 7th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ Charles Howell III can't win the money title. His name won't be found on the PGA Tour player of the year ballot that gets mailed on Monday.

That doesn't mean the Tour Championship is any less important to him.

With all the focus on Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh in the final pairing Thursday, and Davis Love III and Masters champion Mike Weir trying to make one last statement about their seasons, Howell quietly posted a 4-under 67 to share the lead with Kenny Perry.

The final tournament of the year is his final chance to hold a trophy.

``Am I frustrated for not winning this year? Yeah, a little bit,'' Howell said. ``I don't think you can ever give yourself an 'A' for the season without a win.''

Howell got off to a good start for the second straight week, making three straight birdies on the back nine and holing a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th.

Perry had the only bogey-free round at Champions Golf Club, where the greens are big and soft but not easy to get close to the hole because of the tricky breeze.

Fred Funk, Jerry Kelly and Chris DiMarco were at 68, and only 11 other players managed to break par.

As for those other guys?

They were entertaining, even though they're nowhere near the lead.

Singh has a $768,494 lead over Woods on the money list and needs to finish in a three-way tie for third to wrap up the money title. Woods has no choice but to win.

Both are the leading candidates for PGA Tour player of the year.

Woods wasted no time sending a statement, putting five strokes between him and Singh after the first five holes.

Then, he wasted a good round.

``I hit two bad shots, and that was it,'' Woods said about his string of three straight bogeys. ``The rest were mostly putting mistakes.''

Woods, tied for the lead early in his round, wound up with a 1-under 70.

Singh had a pair of three-putt bogeys on his first four holes and never recovered, missing a few good birdie chances and signing for a 73.

Weir, who won at Champions in 2001, played the par 5s in 1 over and shot 72, while Davis Love III finished double bogey-bogey and shot 73.

Howell is considered one of the future stars in golf, although his only PGA Tour victory came last year at the now-defunct Michelob Championship.

``It's not easy to win out here,'' Howell said.

This week is no exception.

The Tour Championship is only for the top 30 players on the money list _ 31 this year, because Darren Clarke earned enough money as a temporary member. So while there are fewer players to beat, all of them are among the best in the world.

Still, only one pairing seemed to matter in the first round.

Singh and Woods not only are Nos. 1-2 on the money list, they aren't likely to be found at dinner together. The conversation was about the same as it was last month when they played in the final round at the American Express Championship.

A handshake on the first tee. A handshake on the 18th green.

``I didn't let that bother me,'' Singh said of his pairing with Woods, knowing Woods is the only guy who can take the money title away from him.

``I told my caddie, 'Let's just play another round of golf.' Don't get yourself involved in any of that. Stay away from him and just do your own thing.''

Three-putt bogeys isn't what Singh had in mind.

That's what led to a bogey on No. 2, and another bogey on No. 4.

Meantime, Woods was going after the flags and enjoying success at it. Even though he missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the first hole, he hit a 4-iron into 12 feet on No. 4 and a 5-iron from 225 yards into 2 feet for eagle on the next hole.

At that point, he was tied for the lead and five shots clear of Singh.

It all fell apart on the back nine, especially when Woods hit into the trees and slammed his club into the turf, leading to a bogey.

Then on the par-3 12th, he sailed his tee shot into a bunker, barely got it out and had to make a 6-foot putt just to save bogey. The final bogey might have been the worse _ a bunker shot to 35 feet, three putts for bogey.

He salvaged his round with two long birdie putts, then gave it back by missing a 6-foot par putt on the final hole.

Ten minutes after he watched his par putt spin out of the hole to end an aggravating day, Woods changed into shorts and a sleeveless shirt, then strapped on his fingerless gloves to go lift weights.

``It might be a little heavier this time,'' Woods said of his workout.

If anything, he needed to work off some steam Thursday.

In a pressure-packed finale of the PGA Tour season, Woods had no trouble distancing himself from Singh.

It's the other dozen guys ahead of him _ starting with Howell and Perry _ that present the problem.