Charles Howell III keeps things loose in L.A. as he prepares to defend his title at Riviera

Charles Howell III has three top 25s this season.
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LOS ANGELES — Chris DiMarco shot a back-nine 29 on Tuesday, winning nearly $500 from Fred Funk and Kevin Na in a practice round for the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.

This despite Funk's hole-in-one on the par-3 16th hole.

"Biggest check I've made all year," DiMarco quipped.

A 29 at "The Riv" is heady stuff, but does that mean DiMarco is a decent bet to win the actual tournament? Yes. No. Maybe. Ditto for Corey Pavin, who shot a final-round 66 at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and has twice won at Riviera.

Phil Mickelson's failure to make the cut at the AT&T last week, when half the golf world was predicting he'd win, highlighted a fundamental truth: Notwithstanding the ridiculously reliable Tiger Woods, picking winners on the PGA Tour is no easy task. (A note about my Steve Elkington pick at Pebble: I meant Steve Lowery.)

That said, lightness of mood counts for something. The champions on Sunday are often among the players laughing and having a fine time on the previous Tuesday, Wednesday and even Thursday. It's as if they know they're going to win.

On that score Charles Howell III ought to be a lock to defend his 2007 victory at Riviera, judging by his entertaining press conference Tuesday.

Howell on the perfect, 80-degree weather: "I've played here when we had to canoe down the first fairway." Howell on all the new logos on his shirt, and whether he felt like a race car: "No, I run about a 6.5 40. I don't feel like a race car."

He had, however, just signed an endorsement deal with Lexus. The first car he bought with his own money was a Lexus, he said, and now he was in a "relationship" with the carmaker. Exciting stuff. So was the commercial Howell shot for Bridgestone golf on Monday. He plays a hyperventilating announcer for a race between a golf ball and a car, a role that took a toll on his vocal chords.

"In a very L.A. way, I'm trying to do my impersonation of Kiefer Sutherland," he said in a raspy voice.

And where was the ad shot?

"It was filmed, and I'm going to mispronounce this, at the Agua Dulce Airport up in the middle of nowhere," Howell said. "We saw three dead bodies up there, too, which — I guess it's remote."

Cue rim-shot.

Howell was asked about the West Coast swing's lineup of classic courses, like Riviera, Pebble Beach, Torrey Pines and Waialae.

"It's real golf," he said. "It's not big, huge fairways with big hills and greens with nine shelves on them. And you see the winners that come out of these places. A guy named Tiger Woods won down there again in San Diego; a struggling rookie, but he's developing."

Howell said he stays with his wife's uncle in Beverly Hills when he's in town, "so I get to feel like a superstar for at least one week." When he noticed paparazzi lined up down the street last year, he started wondering about his uncle's neighbors.

"There's cars lined up everywhere outside this house," Howell said, "all these guys with cameras. I figured Tiger Woods lost his ball over there" — bang! — "or somebody lived there, and come to find out it was David Beckham."

Britney Spears lives at the top of the hill, Howell added.

Not only is he flanked by a singer and a soccer star, he's learning the movie business, thanks to Bridgestone. It works like this: "There's a guy to move a light," Howell said, "and there's a guy to help the guy move a light, and there's a guy to watch him do it."


If bon mots lead to birdies, Charles "Hollywood" Howell III is your winner of the 2008 Northern Trust (L.A.) Open.