Howell finally adds another trophy to the collection

Monday, February 19th 2007, 6:27 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Charles Howell III remembers the first time he stepped inside Tiger Woods' house. There was a TV in the living room, and a mantle above the fireplace with four silver trophies from the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship.

Howell only had a trophy from the Michelob Championship, a tournament that now exists on the LPGA Tour.

``He probably wondered what was wrong with me because I just sat there bit a mesmerized,'' Howell said. ``Here you have it. You've got all four majors sitting right there.''

While the Nissan Open won't be mistaken for a claret jug, it felt like a major to Howell.

After going 4 1/2 years and 127 starts on the PGA Tour without winning, Howell ended his drought with a playoff victory Sunday at Riviera that was surprising on two fronts _ the late fade by Phil Mickelson, and the clutch putts made by Howell.

Mickelson was headed for his second victory in as many weeks when he carried a two-shot lead into the back nine. Then came a 2-foot par putt that rimmed out and a 4-foot birdie putt that stayed right of the cup. Needing a par on the 18th hole to win, he came up short of the green, hit a pedestrian chip and missed an 18-foot to fall into a playoff.

``I felt like I had the tournament in my grasp and let it go,'' said Mickelson, who shot 68.

Howell closed with a 6-under 65, shooting a 32 on the back nine to keep Mickelson honest. And while he didn't do anything spectacular in the three playoff holes, Howell was never more clutch in making pars.

On the 18th, he chipped weakly from behind the 18th green and curled in a 6-footer for par to extend the playoff. On the 10th, where he lost a playoff to Mike Weir four years ago, Howell was headed for a bogey until a pitch with perfect pace from 80 feet that stopped 3 feet away for another par.

He ended it on the par-3 14th.

Both players came up short with a 7-iron as the air lost some of its warmth in the fading light. Mickelson chose to putt, but the ball took a high hop when it left his blade and came up 10 feet short. Howell, facing the kind of chip that failed him in Honolulu last month, hit a solid one that trickled 3 feet by the hole.

Even then, he didn't think his long day was over.

``It's Phil Mickelson hitting a par putt,'' Howell reasoned. ``I'm giving him the putt. When he missed it, my heart jumped because it was a shock that the guy had actually missed that putt. I just said a prayer and said, 'God, if this is the time, then let's knock this in.'

``And fortunately,'' he said, ``it was.''

Howell and Mickelson finished at 268.

Ernie Els (67), Jim Furyk (67) and Robert Allenby (68) tied for third, three shots out of the playoff. Els and Allenby both had chances to catch Mickelson along the back nine of a mostly sunny afternoon, but the Big Easy was tripped up by three bogeys, while Allenby fell back with a three-putt from 60 feet on the fringe at the 15th.

It was a blown opportunity for Mickelson, playing Riviera for the first time since 2001, although it probably won't cost him too much momentum as he slowly makes his way to the Masters.

He worked hard after the U.S. Open debacle to improve his driving, and while he missed the 18th fairway to the left on both tee shots, they were not too far from where he was aiming, and both times he had ample opportunity to get to the green. His 8-iron from 204 yards in regulation came up short. In the playoff, he was on the opposite side of the green, and nearly holed a putt from 60 feet.

``I had control of the tournament,'' Mickelson said. ``I just needed to par the last hole. If I birdied 16 and make that 4-footer, I'm probably going to do it. If I don't miss that par putt on 13, a good chance I do it. So I'll look back and say there were a lot of opportunities that I let slide.

``But on the good note, it's better to get those out of the way early.''

Howell couldn't wait another day.

He was labeled a future star when he won the NCAA title at Oklahoma State in 2000, captured his first PGA Tour event two years later at Kingsmill and made the Presidents Cup team the following year.

But something always kept him from winning. There were nine runner-up finishes since his only trophy, including two of them this year. His poor chip on the 18th hole in Honolulu cost him a chance, and he was beaten by Woods down the coast at Torrey Pines three weeks ago.

Howell was reminded of his shortcomings at every turn in the playoff, but he erased those memories by making the clutch putts, the big chip and the key pars.

When he tapped in the 3-footer to win, he closed his eyes and tilted his head to the skies, hugging caddie Jimmie Johnson. His voice cracked when asked to go over his emotions, and when he mentioned the support he got from his father, along with swing coach David Leadbetter and his staff.

``They never thought anything I was doing wasn't eventually going to pay off,'' Howell said. ``It was never a point where we thought, 'This is no good, you've lost it,' or anything like that. This game can beat you up pretty good, and you see a lot of guys who never recover. I've got great people around me to help get me out of that.''

Now he back book a trip home to Augusta, Ga.

Howell's first goal at the start of the year was to get into the top 50 in the world ranking by the end of March to qualify for the Masters. His victory should put well inside the top 25, essentially securing a tee time at his favorite course.

He also hoisted another trophy, which was more important.