The Jack Nicklaus era officially ended at the U.S. Open, and the
hunt for the next Nicklaus ended with it. From this point on,
Tiger Woods is the standard by which all golfers will be
measured. "We've been waiting how many years for the next
Nicklaus?" asks Mike Holder, coach of NCAA champion Oklahoma
State. "Finally, it appears, Tiger is it. What are the odds of
another player of that caliber coming along within three or four
years of Tiger? I'd say they are astronomical."
Holder's calculations may be correct, but that won't stop any of
us from beginning the search for the next Tiger. Already a
threesome of youngsters--Sergio Garcia and two Australians, Aaron
Baddeley and Adam Scott--have been discussed, and pretty much
dismissed, as players capable of measuring up to Woods. Last week
at the Canon Greater Hartford Open, Charles Howell, a newly
minted pro from Augusta by way of Oklahoma State, became the
fourth name on the list.
Like the other next Tigers, Howell, 21, is a power player, even
though you wouldn't think so at first glance. He's 5'11" and 158
pounds, and while he's physically fit, he looks skinny. The
braces make him appear younger than his age, too. Yet, says Casey
Martin, who was paired with Howell for the first two rounds at
Hartford, "He kills the ball. I see the effect Tiger has had on
these kids. They are lifting. They're strong. They swing hard,
but not in a crazy way. If you want to hang with you-know-who,
you've got to hit it far."
Howell has played the junior and the amateur circuits for years,
but his stock rose dramatically in June. Two weeks ago he came in
second in a Buy.com tour event in Greensboro, the highest finish
ever on that tour by an amateur. Two weeks before that Howell won
the individual NCAA crown in record fashion, going 23 under par.
After that runaway, with either a "yes, sir" or a "no, sir"
attached to every sentence, he reiterated his intention to return
to Stillwater for his senior year.
No one was terribly surprised, though, when he turned pro last
week at the TPC at River Highlands. In a lot of ways he was born
to play pro golf. He was raised in Augusta, the home of the
Masters, a place, Howell says, where "you don't play basketball
or football like kids in other towns. You grow up with golf." He
got started when he was seven, after seeing a neighbor hitting
plastic balls around the backyard. Little Charlie ran into the
house and asked his mom, Debbie, if he could play, too. Four
years later Howell had graduated to lessons with David
Leadbetter. The two grew close over the ensuing 10 years, and it
was Leadbetter who suggested that the time had come for Howell to
The clincher came at the Buy.com event. The $35,200 that Howell
left on the table in North Carolina would have boosted him into
the race for the top 15 on that tour's money list and an
exemption next year on the big Tour. Within two days he announced
that he would play as a pro. "I've wanted to do this since I was
seven, and I thought it was time to jump in and go for it,"
Howell said in Hartford, where he had been given a sponsor's
exemption. "Who knows if it's the right decision?"
It looked like a pretty good one, based on his performance last
week. Howell made a double bogey on his 10th hole after putting
over a ridge and off the green--"A fabulous putt," he said later,
sarcastically--but was one under par for the rest of the round,
and on Friday birdied three holes in a row on the back nine to
shoot a three-under 67 and make the cut by two shots. Howell
added a pair of 68s on the weekend to come in 32nd and earn
$13,627. Woods, by the way, came in 60th and won $2,544 in his
Tour debut, at the '96 Greater Milwaukee Open.
Howell will need to make about $350,000 more to finish among the
top 125 and avoid Q school in the fall (last week he received
three more sponsors' exemptions, for the B.C. Open, the John
Deere Classic and the Sprint International), but he's as close to
a sure thing as you-know-who. Is it fair to compare? Of course
not. When commissioner Tim Finchem stopped by last week to
welcome Howell to the Tour, he said, "Good luck and play well,"
then added, "You'll have to."
That was a fair, and accurate, assessment. Don't hold your breath
waiting for the next Tiger. Charles Howell will probably turn out
to be, well, the first Charles Howell, and who knows, that may be
plenty good enough.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Finchem told Howell, "Good luck and play well. You'll have to."