HONOLULU - You can't pose this question to just anyone: "Why aren't you better?"
Oh, you can ask it more delicately than that. But that's the dead-center heart of however you craft it. You can only ask this of a professional - and you use that word as the utmost compliment for all it denotes - for a professional will stand up to it, and he will answer it with the kind of mature equanimity that you expect, otherwise you wouldn't bother.
Charles Howell III is a professional, and he has conducted himself in such a manner since he decided 14 years ago to begin playing golf for a living. He loves the game, and he has been a very good golfer, winning twice on the PGA Tour, earning more than $1 million each season, playing for the U.S. twice in the Presidents Cup, reaching the Tour Championship five times.
He is fit, clean-cut, soft-spoken and hits the ball hard.
But as good as Charles Howell is, you keep waiting for more. So you have to ask, when will more arrive? It's a hard question, but the answer is even harder, because golf conspires so readily with uncertainty.
"It's not an easy game. In fact, I'm still learning it," Howell, 33, said Thursday at Waialae CC after an opening 66 in the Sony Open in Hawaii. It's a promising start for a guy who still has promise and needs to find a way to unleash the fullness of it.
Charles Howell was supposed to be good. He grew up in Augusta, Ga., home of the Masters Tournament. He has played golf enthusiastically since he was 10. He took instruction early on from one of the game's most acclaimed teachers, David Leadbetter. He became an All-American and NCAA individual champion at Oklahoma State University.
It bears repeating that Howell has been a good PGA Tour player. But there's another gear in there somewhere. He knows it, too.
"I need to quit trying as hard when I get into certain positions," Howell said after a pause to rummage through introspection. "I try to force it too much. I guess that comes from having expectations for myself.
"My goals are high, but I think they should be," he added. "It's not as if I sit back and say, if I don't win 25 golf tournaments am I going to be miserable? No, I'm not. But I am aware that it's time for me to start doing some of the things that I think I should be doing, yeah."
The Sony Open is perhaps a microcosm of his career. Five times he's finished in the top five, including runner-up last year to Johnson Wagner.
On Tuesday, Howell played a practice round with fellow Oklahoma State product Morgan Hoffmann, who, Howell said, "I think just turned 12.
"It's eye-opening that I'm going to be 34 in June, and this is my 14th season, and that's just hard for me to believe," he added. "I still I think I'm that young guy, and I'm not."
To Howell's credit, he still approaches the game like a young guy. He is not above seeking input from new sources. He began working with instructor Gary Gilchrist last August. He's picked the brain of Grant Waite while playing at Isleworth CC in Orlando, and at the Shark Shootout in December he was probing Greg Norman about his fitness and practice routines when he was No. 1 in the world.
Desire is not lacking. Neither is talent.
"I think everyone has to find his own key to getting to another level, whatever level that is," Matt Kuchar said. "For me it was finding an instructor I was comfortable with and just learning to play. We all know Charles is a great player. He has a great golf swing. When he finds a way to kick it into another gear, he'll win a bunch more."
Howell believes Gilchrist, who he labels, "a coach more than an instructor," can make a difference. "He has helped me to simplify things. I'm spending more time on things that matter to me, which means a lot of work on my short game, a lot of work on 100 yards and in. He has just helped me simplify everything."
Simple helps, especially with two young children scurrying about the house. Kids tend to change your perspective on time. Competing against twenty-something hot shots, a fraternity to which you no longer belong, can have you looking at your watch more frequently.
But so what? Promise might have an expiration date, but there's no uniform stamp. Where is Charles Howell along that arc where promise gets fulfilled? He's out there, working, intent on getting better - not because you ask, but because it's what he continues to ask of himself.
"I still love the game of golf and playing in golf tournaments," he said. "I'm still learning this game, and I think that as I keep applying these things I'm learning I'm going to rise to another level. I intend to be a student of the game for a long time and I enjoy the process of learning it, so in that regard, I am that young guy yet."
(Getty Images photo)
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