Monday, February 19, 2007

Mr. Howell finally gets off the island

It has been easy - and justifiable - to write off the lost generation of twentysomethings on the American golf scene.

They’ve had the misfortune of being born at the wrong time - the age of Tiger Woods - but, beyond that, they haven’t distinguished themselves. Make a list of the best players under 30 and it’s populated by names like Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Geoff Ogilvy and Sergio Garcia, none of whom are American-made.

Charles Howell III may be coming to the rescue, finally.

Even before Howell showed up several years ago wearing shiny white pants with a green stripe down the side in his Masters debut in his hometown of Augusta, Ga., he has been ticketed for superstardom.

Still just 27, Howell has been good, sometimes very, very good, but not as good as expected. The past couple of years, Howell - who once stood out in his edgy clothing - began to fade into the crowd, a victim of overanalysis, a dodgy touch on his short shots and, of course, great expectations.

But winning the Nissan Open Sunday in a playoff over Phil Mickelson, Howell showed us something. He showed us he could make putts when he needed them. He showed us he could hang in against one of the two best players in the world. He showed us the scar tissue built up by nine runner-up finishes since his only other victory hadn’t paralyzed him.

By his own admission, Howell has been guilty of being too technical with his swing. Golf is ultimately about feel and management more than mechanics and Howell seems to be moving in that direction.

Many of us expected Howell to be the best player of his generation and it can still happen. With two second-place finishes and a 24-carat victory at Riviera, Howell has made a huge leap back into relevance.

It’s harder than any of us know to win on the PGA Tour and Howell has the scars to prove it. But now Howell has another trophy - the scars belong to Mickelson this time - and reason to think there will be many more.

A generation thanks him.