Charles Howell finally made his mark by winning the Nissan Open

Friday March 9th, 2007
Charles Howell took down Phil Mickelson at the Nissan Open.
Jeff Gross / Getty Images

Tiger Woods has changed even the nomenclature of golf. He gave us Tiger Slam, idiomatic for winning four major championships in a row, but not in the same calendar year. And he originated cold-shafting, the term for starting predawn practice rounds without so much as a warmup shot.

Phil Mickelson, the Avis to Tiger's Hertz, made his contribution last week. We can now welcome Phili dip, employed either as a noun or a verb, into the game's lexicon. Chili dip is golfspeak for laying sod over the ball with a sand wedge, or hitting the ball fat. A Phili dip is when you do it on the green, the way Phil did on Riviera's 9th hole during the final round of the Nissan Open when it appeared as if he was on his way to his second victory in as many weeks.

Facing a 98-foot putt with a slab of fringe and rough blocking his path to the cup, Mickelson elected to hit one of his patented flop shots. Smart play, but this patent must have expired because Mickelson Phili dipped, stubbing his wedge into the green and moving his ball only 15 feet. He salvaged a bogey, but the Phili dip exemplified the awkward, inexplicable way he lost a tournament that he seemed to have won from the moment he arrived -- in style -- in Los Angeles after his dominating victory at Pebble Beach.

Mickelson, who commuted the 100 miles from his house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., to Pacific Palisades by means of a chartered plane, hadn't had much luck at Riviera -- his best finish was a 15th in 1999 -- so he invited LPGA Hall of Famer and Riviera member Amy Alcott to accompany him on a practice round, during which she offered advice on how to play the holes and read some of the trickier greens. But on Sunday ... well, the ending may sound familiar. Coming to the 72nd hole needing a par to win and a bogey to tie, Mickelson pushed his tee shot left, failed to reach the green with his approach, left a delicate pitch seven feet short and missed the par putt. When he subsequently couldn't match three straight pars by Charles Howell in a playoff, Mickelson had Phili dipped the whole darn tournament.

Here's why it's so tough being Phil in the Tiger Woods Era. Last Friday afternoon Mickelson found himself on the right half of the 6th green. The pin was on the back left. Between Phil and the pin was the notorious bunker that squats in the middle of the green. A green with a bunker in the middle of it? At the Riv, it's genius. Anywhere else, it's goofy.

Anyway, Ernie Els was also on the wrong side of the green and played a low-running chip to the back level. Phil, wielding his lob wedge like a scalpel, hit a remarkable flop to four feet and saved par. He brushed the ball off the green so cleanly that he didn't bother to look down after his follow-through because he knew there was no divot. Even Els, after seeing the shot, looked back at Mickelson with an expression that said, You cannot be serious. Yes, Mickelson botched the same shot on Sunday, but it's certainly in his repertoire. Like Tiger, Mickelson loves the sort of challenge a shot like that presents. The difference is that Tiger's batting average is considerably higher.

Mickelson, who has won 30 times on Tour, is destined to have his career compared with Woods's, so just when it looked as if Mickelson had gotten over his U.S. Open follies at Winged Foot, and that his runaway Pebble Beach win (exemplified by his new driving accuracy) might be the last step he needed to get on equal footing with Woods, he fumbled the Nissan with three bogeys on the final 10 holes and a fourth on the third playoff hole. All Howell had to do for the win, his first in five years, was rap in a three-footer for par.

"Who's going to challenge Tiger? Nobody is right now," says Tour veteran Steve Flesch. "Ernie, Vijay, Retief -- all of these guys combined aren't going to challenge Tiger. Phil is playing good right now, but Phil will be Phil."

Going into the final 18, Mickelson was a stroke ahead of Padraig Harrington and three clear of Howell. Mickelson's lead could've been insurmountable had he not frittered away three seemingly inconsequential shots on the back nine on Saturday, lipping out a three-footer at the 12th, missing a six-footer for par at 13 and pulling his tee shot way right of the green at the par-3 16th. On Sunday he lipped out a short putt at the 13th that, seen in slow motion, appeared to be halfway into the cup before horseshoeing back out. Then he misread a four-footer for birdie at the 16th and, needing the par at 18, made bogey with a poor approach and chip. "I had the tournament in control," said Mickelson, who like Howell finished at 16-under 268. "I simply needed to par the last hole. There were a lot of opportunities that I let slide. It happens. It's part of the game."

So, too, is the rise and fall of golfers. Last year was a tough one for Howell, who, after dominating the junior and collegiate ranks (at Oklahoma State) and earning a Tour card in only six pro starts in 2000, proceeded to become the poster boy for an overrated, underachieving generation of "young guns." After shooting some embarrassing scores -- 80-84 in the Masters, his hometown tournament -- Howell parted ways with David Leadbetter, who had coached him since he was 12.

"Deep down," says Leadbetter, "I knew he wouldn't stay away too long," and sure enough, after missing the cut at the International last August, Howell called Leadbetter and together they worked harder on his short game, focusing on shots from 140 yards and in.

"I'm a range rat, I love to hit balls, I love the mechanics of the swing," says Howell. "I can spend seven or eight hours on the range, and then you go, Well, there's [only] 30 minutes left for chipping and 30 minutes for putting, and we're done. I did a better job this off-season of dividing my time."

The results have been impressive. Before Riviera, Howell already had two seconds (Hawaii and Torrey Pines), but beating Mickelson was huge for a player who has had nine runner-up finishes but no wins since his only previous Tour victory, at the 2002 Michelob Classic. "This is a relief," Howell said.

He has seen the spoils of victory, though, thanks to his friendship with fellow Orlando resident Woods. "I remember one of the first times I went over to his house," Howell says. "He has his TV in the living room, and there are all four major trophies sitting there. He probably wondered what was wrong with me because I sat there and looked at them, mesmerized."

When someone pointed out on Sunday that he now has something Woods doesn't -- a Nissan Open trophy -- Howell laughed. "I can't give him any stick," he said. "Are you kidding?"

Howell didn't make the last Presidents or Ryder Cup team, but maybe now, at 27, he's ready to fulfill expectations. The best part of his winning performance was his clutch shotmaking, especially his putting, during a six-under 65 on Sunday. He made a 25-footer for birdie at the 14th hole after watching Jim Furyk putt on the same line and a 30-footer at the 16th on Robert Allenby's line. The biggest putts came on the 72nd hole, at which he left his approach just short of the green, pounded a putt up the hill to about 10 feet and coolly sank the second for par.

Better yet, the win should move him far enough up in the World Ranking, from 45th to 16th, to nail down a berth at the Masters. (The top 50 are invited.) "The place is so darn special to me that I couldn't imagine watching it from the couch at home," he says. "I'd probably have to go on vacation somewhere without a TV, but then again, I'd want to watch it. It wouldn't be a good week."

Last week, however, was.

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