ORLANDO — It’s this week or never for those on the outside looking in at The Masters.
This week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational is important on a lot of levels but carries that much more weight for anyone outside the top 60 in the Official World Golf Rankings and not otherwise already qualified for the Masters three weeks from now. At 75th, count Charles Howell III among them.
“Obviously (the Masters) is on the front of my mind,” Howell said. “But trying to make it doesn’t help you play better golf.”
The need to play better has been at the heart of what has become an all-too-familiar annual pursuit of trying to punch a ticket to his hometown the last few years for the 34-year-old. Only once in the last five years has he qualified for the year’s first major, in 2012 when he tied for 19th.
If there is an upside to Howell’s unforgiving and dubious tradition it’s that he arrives at Bay Hill having played well this season.
There was a tie for fifth in Las Vegas in October, followed by a tie for seventh the following week in Malaysia. The next month in Mexico Howell got into contention before tying for sixth.
Always a guy who plays a heavy schedule on the West Coast and in Florida, Howell kept the momentum going once the calendar flipped to 2014 with a tie for eighth in Honolulu and a tie for sixth in Phoenix.
Last week in Tampa he finished 14th on the strength of a final-round 68.
Still, he’s on the outside looking in when it comes to the gates of Augusta National, unless he plays well at Bay Hill and in Houston in two weeks.
“I’ve been in this situation so many times before that if I don’t make it it’s not the end of the world,” said Howell, who looks grizzled and in some spots a bit gray. “But it’s a tournament no one wants to miss.”
Plenty are still trying to get in, too.
Pablo Larrazabal (62), Ryan Palmer (63), Mikko Ilonent (64), Bernd Wiesberger (67), Ross Fisher (70), Peter Uihlein (71), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (72) and Brooks Koepka (74) all rank ahead of Howell.
Given the strength of the field at Bay Hill, valuable world ranking points will be on the line this week.
A win of course would solve everything, but Howell has never done that at Bay Hill, even though the first home he ever bought was across the street from the House That Palmer Built.
Howell’s best finish here was a tie for eighth in 2005. He also has four other top-25 finishes at Arnie’s place.
Last year, Howell admitted that he burned himself out trying to play his way into the Masters.
His schedule isn’t much different this season, but his mindset is and the results have helped sharpen the focus while keeping it at a distance, as much as it could be for a kid who grew up in Augusta.
“We’re always playing for something,” Howell said. “If not the Masters, then the U.S. Open or British Open or the (FedExCup) Playoffs.
“It’s nice to have an incentive out there.”
For Howell and plenty of others playing at Bay Hill this week, none right now would be bigger than winning the tournament hosted by the four-time Masters champ. A victory would nab a blue blazer and the opportunity to play for a green one.
Most of the last five years, Howell has watched the Masters on television like the rest of us. It’s something he has done since he was 7 years old.
“Nothing has changed there,” Howell said. “You become a fan for the week. It’s probably the only event if I’m not in it I’ll watch on television.”
Of course, he’d rather be on the other side of the tube. Not that the road, or the mathematics behind it, are that easy.
“The competition is getting tougher, players are ready to win at a younger age,” Howell said. “I’d like to have the week off before the Masters but I won’t have that luxury.”
March madness, indeed.