Backspin: Howell keeps knocking on door

January 21, 2013
Brian Wacker,

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- What a crazy weekend of golf.

Brian Gay comes out of nowhere to win the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Bill Clinton Foundation.

John Cook goes birdie, birdie, birdie to rally past David Frost in a playoff at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship in the season-opener on the Champions Tour.


And Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy miss the cut in Abu Dhabi.

I’ll get to most of that below, but Charles Howell III’s start to the season can’t be ignored -- though in some respects he’d probably like to.

Sunday marked the 14th time in Howell’s career that he has finished second in a PGA TOUR event. The only player in the same 30-something age bracket as Howell who has more? Tiger Woods.

On one hand, Howell’s start to 2013 is promising. The 33-year-old finished third and second in his first two starts. He’s yet to shoot over 67. And he’s made just seven bogeys in 144 holes.

On the other, he hasn’t won in six years and has just two career wins after what was a heralded amateur career with high expectations. The near-miss Sunday also cost him a spot in the Masters, which the Augusta, Ga., native has qualified for just once in the last four years.

“It's awfully challenging mentally, and the chances to win are what we want,” Howell said on Sunday. “But I still necessarily wouldn't necessarily call it fun.

“I'm really disappointed. I wanted to get back into the Masters. It's so darn hard to win out here and when you do have a chance to do it, it's painful to let it slip by.”

Howell’s lack of victories certainly haven’t been the result of a lack of effort. Few work harder than he does, in the gym and on the game. But he’s also gone through a number of swing coaches, most recently having hooked up with Gary Gilchrist.

“I still need to find a way to do a little better job coming down the stretch and do a little better job closing golf tournaments,” said Howell, who shot 64 Sunday but three-putted for par on the final hole of regulation and ultimately lost in a playoff. “Especially when you have the chances to win.”

Howell should have another one of those chances this week in San Diego, where he has, naturally, twice been a runner-up.


1. Brian Gay didn’t exactly have a banner year in 2012 with 10 missed cuts in 28 starts. “Last year was a struggle,” he said. “I just wanted to come out this year kind of refocused, recharged, and believing in myself.” Part of that was offseason work with Grant Waite and Joe Mayo to try to hit the ball farther -- never one of Gay’s strengths. It paid off in, among other things, Gay’s tee shot on the final hole of the playoff when he uncorked a tee shot north of 300 yards to give himself a short iron in to set up the winning birdie. “It's helped me a lot,” Gay continued. “I was trying to get more efficient with my driver numbers to kind of max out my distance.” It added up to a fourth career win and Gay’s first in four years.

2. Scott Stallings was the only player without a bogey the first three rounds at PGA West. Sunday, he made three, including two over his final three holes. “Coming down the stretch on the 72nd hole, you can't make mistakes like that,” Stallings said of his approach shot from the middle of the fairway that found the water on the final hole of regulation. “It stinks, but it's something that I'll definitely learn from. I was very fortunate to have a very big lead, but it is what it is. Unfortunately, I just hit a bad shot.” That’s what pressure can do. But Stallings isn’t alone, which leads me to …

3. Stat of the Week I: Seven times in 2012 a player came from six or more strokes back in the final round to win. Lest you think that was a fluke, it took all of three weeks for that trend to continue with Gay wiping out his six-shot deficit thanks in large part to a final-round 63.

4. Stat of the Week II: Gay's last over par round at PGA West? You have to go back to the final round of 2007, a span of 28 rounds ago.

5. Little-Known Fact I Found Interesting: Swede David Lingmerth’s uncle, Goran, was a kicker for the Cleveland Browns in 1987 (he played just one year, in one game). Needless to say, this Lingmerth’s miss wide left on the 18th hole Sunday, proved costly as it eliminated him from the playoff.

6. Jack Nicklaus turns 73 on Monday, matching the number of career wins he has on the PGA TOUR. That ranks third all-time behind only Tiger Woods, who surpassed the Golden Bear last year, and Sam Snead.

7. Stat of the Week III: 1,761,348. That’s the average of how many total steps were taken by the field each round of last week’s Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation, where fitness has become the key message of the event. That averages out to 251,913 total calories burned per day (and roughly 1,635 per player).


“He said, golf is the way politics is. If you're grip is too far to the right, you're going to get in trouble on the left. But if your grip is too far to the left, you're going to get in big trouble on the right.” 
-- Bill Clinton at last week’s Humana Challenge on advice he once got from Tom Watson.

“It’s amazing what you can learn when you listen and don’t talk. I felt the more I’d say, the more my chances would lessen.” 
-- Paul McGinley on what he learned leading up to being named captain of the 2014 European Ryder Cup team last week.

“If you ask most guys, they would want to be involved in that process a little bit more.” 
-- Jason Dufner on the U.S. Ryder Cup selection process after McGinley was named Europe’s captain in part because of support and input from players.


@DJohnsonPGA: At The Madison Club with my baby @PaulinaGretzky
-- Dustin Johnson with confirmation that he is dating the daughter of hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

@GaryPlayer: Happy Birthday to my good friend, the Golden Bear, @jacknicklaus who turns 73 today. Still the GOAT...
-- One legend to another. Pretty cool.

@BigEinBigD: As someone who's done an interview shortly after a poor outcome recently, suck it up's a game
-- Ed Loar with a message for the New England Patriots head coach, who declined CBS’ request for a postgame interview after the Patriots were beaten by the Ravens in Sunday’s AFC Championship. Loar finished bogey-double bogey the final two holes of q-school to miss getting his card by two shots.

8. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods both missed the cut in Abu Dhabi -- the first time first time Nos. 1 and 2 in the world had done so in the same tournament since last year’s U.S. Open when Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy both failed to reach the weekend. Don’t read too much into it. That’s golf. It happens. On a side note, Woods will make his PGA TOUR season debut this week at Torrey Pines, where he has never missed the cut.

9. Speaking of McIlroy, his swing looked like a bigger problem than his new equipment. We’ve seen this before from McIlroy, too, when he missed three of four cuts on TOUR last May and June. One other thing we’ve seen from McIlroy: An ability to diagnose and fix it.

Monday Mailbag

Is this going to be a difficult year for Rory McIlroy? -- Tom Kerrigan

If by difficult you mean difficult to match his 2012 season, then yes. But it has almost nothing to do with his equipment switch and more to do with the fact that it’s almost impossible to maintain the type of consistency and at times dominance he displayed last year. That’s not say McIlroy won’t win, and maybe even a major, but there’s so much depth on TOUR it makes that much more difficult to win each week.

How many first-time winners do you think will there be on TOUR this year? -- Mark Olson

We’ve already seen one in Russell Henley, who did it in his first start as a professional on the TOUR no less. Based on the trend the last couple of years, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 10. Again, it comes down to depth. There’s just too much talent for the trend not to continue.

What is the player reaction to the dramatic schedule change and new qualifying tournaments at the end of year? -- Skip Westfall

It depends who you ask, Skip. Players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson likely aren’t going to alter their schedules a whole lot. Others will, by choice or need. By and large, however, the players are fine with it.

Have a question for the mailbag? Email your question to, or tweet it to @pgatour_brianw.

Forward Spin

There was a time when the Farmers Insurance Open might as well have been called the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson Open given their dominance at Torrey Pines with Woods and Mickeslon having combined to win seven of the 10 titles there from 1999 to 2008 (Woods was responsible for six of those, including four in a row from ‘05 to ‘08). The winners have been varied of late, however -- from Ben Crane to Bubba Watson. Woods and Mickelson are both in the field but neither is in peak form with Woods having missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and Mickelson having struggled at least early in the week at PGA West. Last year, Brandt Snedeker was the beneficiary of Kyle Stanley’s epic collapse. It’s hard to repeat anywhere and only three players -- Woods, Mickelson and J.C. Snead -- have done so in this event, but I like Snedeker’s chances. He’s coming off a third-place finish at Kapalua, has three straight top 10s in this event, and I think the reigning FedExCup champion is in for a big year.