On Thursday, when the first tee shots are struck at the 83rd edition of The Masters, Titleist Ambassador Charles Howell III may savor the experience just a bit more than any other player in the field. When Charles tees up his Pro V1 on Tea Olive, the 445-yard opening hole at Augusta National, it will mark an unforgettable home-coming and serve as a bullet-proof reminder that he belongs among the world's best golfers.
Last November, when Howell arrived in Sea Island, GA for the RSM Classic (the final event on the 2018 PGA Tour calendar), it had been eleven years since his last Tour victory. He had played well throughout that period, but at the RSM, he finally broke through. He hit all 14 fairways and all 18 greens in regulation in Round 1 and he rode the momentum to victory. His hard work and perseverance paid off in the form of another special perk, too — it earned him a trip back home, to The Masters.
You see, Charles grew up in Augusta, Georgia. He attended the tournament every year as a budding junior golfer. And now that Masters week is upon us, we wanted to check back and take in the Augusta experience through the eyes of one of the city's favorite sons.
Enjoy our conversation with Charles Howell III in the Q&A below.
Q: When we last spoke with you after the RSM, you talked about proving that you could win vs. believing you could win. What does proving it mean to you?
Charles: A lot of times you're asked, "Do you think you can win again?", or "Do you think you can achieve this?" Obviously, most people will say, "Sure I believe in myself. I have confidence." But at the same time, until you actually see a real result, there’s always that tiny bit of uncertainty. But now that I’ve gotten over that hump, I have a new reference. It’s like, “Okay, I proved this to myself, I can now do it." So if and when I find myself in that position again, hopefully I'll be even more comfortable than I was this time and I’ll be able to just play my game. I can let the results handle themselves and know that my game is good enough.
Q: When you won in the playoff at Sea Island, how fast were you thinking about getting back to Augusta?
Charles: That's the first thing I thought of when the putt went in for me to win — okay, this tournament was one massive, stressful qualifier for the Masters. I think I appreciate this one more. I've missed it so many times being just outside of the top 50 in the world ranking, being just outside the top 30 on the FedEx Cup, so I appreciate the difficulty. It's a small field for a reason, the invitations are hard to get and I definitely appreciate mine as much as anybody does this year.
Q: We know that you grew up in Augusta. Do you still have family there?
Charles: Yes, my mom and dad still live there and we'll be staying with them during Masters week. The kids obviously love it because they get a full week with their grandparents. They get to stay in the land of "yes" for seven days. It actually works out really well. My parents live two and a half miles from the golf course, so I don't think we could even rent a house that would be better, more convenient for the golf tournament, so we're lucky on that one.
Q: Will you be sleeping in your old room?
No, it's totally been redone. I didn't even recognize it. I think the day I left for college, my mom just gutted the entire upstairs and changed everything. It is my same room, but it now looks like a guest room, much more so than a normal room.
Q: The last time you competed in the tournament was in 2012. What do you hope for in returning this year?
Honestly, I'd like to find a way to enjoy it more this year. I don't know if that's possible. Other years that I've been there, it's been really stressful in terms of this is a golf tournament I grew up with and it happens to be a Major. And obviously it's difficult and important for everybody, but I think being from there it's easy to put a little extra pressure on myself.
The golf tournament itself is stressful. For a golf course, as pretty as it is, it's really difficult. It's like an inside joke, the golf course is beautiful for everybody but the players. But this year year I want to just appreciate it.
Q: How will your approach differ from other weeks on Tour?
One big difference is the guys will play right on the weekend, so I'll play late Saturday and then nine holes a day Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and that's it. It's easy to wear yourself out that week. It is a bit of a chaotic week. Unlike any other event in the world, when you show up out there, a Monday morning at 9:30, there's 45,000 people there. Everywhere else on Tour Mondays and Tuesdays are kind of quiet and things sort of build up, but that's just not the case at the Masters.
And then the Par-3 competition will be a little bit different for me this year, having my kids now old enough to caddy, and understand what's going on. So that'll be neat as well.
Q: Will you be making any equipment changes? Putting in new wedges or anything for the week?
No, simply because I carry a 5-wood all the time anyway. So that's one club you see guys put in the bag. Earlier this year, I put in the 718 T-MB 4-iron so I'm able to get that quite a bit higher than a 718 CB 4-iron, so that could obviously come in handy for number four, the par three there, possibly number 13 or 15. Not specific going into this week, but I've definitely thought about it.
Q: When you won at the RSM you had just put the new 2019 Pro V1 golf ball in play. How has the ball been performing for you since, and how important is it at Augusta to have confidence in your golf ball?
I love the new Pro V1 because it's still very soft and spins well around the greens. Obviously at Augusta you get really, really fast greens. Having a slightly softer golf ball I think is an advantage.
And then secondly, I spin this ball a little bit less with the driver. That helps with distance off the tee and at Augusta, not all, but some of the fairways are quite wide so you can take advantage of a lot of holes with a good drive.
I fell in love with the new Pro V because I was able to find a ball that was soft around the greens but was still fast and didn't spin a whole lot off the driver. If you were going to design a golf ball for Augusta National, I'd say that's how you'd build it.
Q: Besides attending the Masters, what would you recommend that visitors do when they're in Augusta?
Golf-wise, if you could play any golf course in Augusta, public or private, Augusta Country Club is where I grew up playing. They've redone it, it's an old Donald Ross, it's been sort of restored to how it was. It's a great golf experience. Another great golf course in town is Sage Valley, which is very similar to Augusta.
For fast food recommendations, one thousand percent Wife Saver, W-I-F-E. It is incredible. So if you're kind of in a hurry for a quick meal, I would suggest that.
Q: What should we order there?
The chicken strips and homemade biscuits and then mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans and fried okra. It's all health food. Your cardiologist would love it. But it is fantastic.
Oh, and for someone just attending the Masters, I would encourage them to walk around the whole property. Don't necessarily go out there trying to watch a particular group or golfer. First, just walk around the whole place. People forget it was a nursery before Bobby Jones built the golf course. The change in elevation I think surprises everybody. It's far, far hillier than you'd think from seing it on television. There isn't a blade of grass or even a piece of pine straw out of place on there. It's just phenomenal.
Q: What's your favorite hole at Augusta National?
Favorite hole is number twelve and I say so because it's quite possibly the shortest, most difficult par-3 in the world. It looks pretty benign. I mean, it's a 150 yards most days, rarely more than a 9-iron, but the wind can get swirling and bouncing in there. No matter how many times you've been over that shot, you literally have no idea where the ball's gonna come down. I've seen good shots end up in the middle of Raes Creek, I've seen good shots end up in the pine trees over the green and you never find the ball. So yeah, it's my favorite hole because it really shows that a par-3 doesn't have to be 240 yards to be difficult. It can be 150 and get your attention plenty.
Q: Speaking of that swirling wind, do you have a specific strategy to read or account for that throughout your round while at Augusta?
It's actually important to follow the compass. Say, for example, the wind's coming out of the southeast — you really have to trust that. It gets in the pine trees there and the way the course is set down in a valley in some spots, it's easy for the wind to bounce around.
And the second thing I would say is to do your best, make your decision and stick with it. When you get down into numbers ten, eleven, twelve, it's just really easy to start second guessing yourself. They're hard holes to begin with, and then you start second guessing yourself on the wind. It definitely adds an element there to that golf tournament that not a lot of other place have.
Q: What's the best piece of advice you've ever received from a fellow tour player playing Augusta? Have you had a mentor?
Yes. A couple of good memories out there. I played a lot of golf with Nick Price around The Masters. He was a guy I looked up to. As a kid when I worked with David Leadbetter, Nick Price was obviously one of his main people at the time. So Nick basically walked me through how he played every hole. I think that the best advice I got from him was really understanding that you don't shoot at a lot of flags at Augusta National. Playing smart. You don't force going for par-5s in two if you're not comfortable. You have to learn to trust your wedges. You've seen the shots so many times on TV and it's easy to get suckered in after seeing so many guys go for this hole or that hole in two, et cetera.
My most memorable experience around Augusta was with Seve Ballesteros. He was obviously a legend and I remember I invited him one year to play a practice round and he said yes. Just going around that golf course with him, watching him chip, pitch and play bunker shots, it was just awesome. Just to play a round of golf with him, just to watch what he did. Only at a place like The Masters does that happen, where a young player like myself can play with a past champion, ala Seve Ballesteros, and learn from him. That would never happen at a "normal" tour event.
Q: We're guessing you'll probably carry on that tradition. Will you be mentoring any younger guys who are playing for the first time? Will you pass along any specific knowledge to them?
Yes, a kid who golfs at Oklahoma State right now, Viktor Huvland, he won the US Amateur, so I'm going to play a couple practice rounds with him. Yeah, for sure. I will definitely tell him everything that these other guys told me and there's a few things that I've learned on spots — where and where not to miss shots. Augusta National can make you look foolish. You can literally make a double bogey from the middle of every fairway. So there's just some spots where it's best learning where you can miss it. It's always fun playing with guys who are playing it for the first time. You can even see sort of in their eyes how overwhelming it can be.
Q: Can you give us a preview of what your Sunday apparel might include? We're sure it will look great with Green.
Exactly! Amen to that. That's actually up to the fine folks at FootJoy Apparel. I have not received a package yet, so whatever they tell me to wear is what I'll be wearing. I'm sure it will go well with green, though.
Q: Final question. What more would you like to prove — to others or to yourself personally?
I'd love nothing more than to have a really good, legitimate chance to win The Masters with nine holes to go on Sunday. I think that'd be one thing that I'd just absolutely love. And then more from that, I would love to get in the hunt in some majors. Whether you win them or not — so be it, but to have a real good chance to win 'em, that'd be the one thing in my career that I'd love to do.
Thank you, Charles. Best of luck at this year's Masters and throughout the 2019 season!