Charles Howell III finally broke through in Pacific Palisades, ending a frustrating run of second place finishes to claim a dramatic victory over Phil Mickelson in the Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club.
On Sunday, February 18, Howell closed with a 6-under 65 and forced a dramatic playoff when Mickelson bogeyed the 18th hole. Howell put away the two-time Masters champion with his third consecutive par save, draining a 3-foot putt on the 14th hole to secure the victory.
For Mickelson, Sunday’s meltdown was eerily reminiscent of his epic collapse at this year’s U.S. at Winged Foot. Once again, Mickelson found himself on the 72nd hole with a one shot lead, needing a par to seal the victory. On the way to what appeared to be his second title in as many weeks, Mickelson took an all-too-familiar left-hand turn on the decisive hole, pushing his drive into the left rough and moments later missing a long par putt that would have given him the victory.
Though the national story line will read how Mickelson let another one slip away, golf fans should not overlook a breakout win for Howell III, a guy generally regarded as one of the most promising young players on the Tour. Howell kept “Lefty” within his sights all day Sunday, didn’t back off and made the pressure-packed shot when he needed to. This victory could be just the spark Howell needs to establish himself as one of the game’s best.
The 27-year-old pro from Augusta, Georgia proved his mettle against a star-studded list of elite players like Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Jim Furyk and Sergio Garcia, all of whom were within striking distance for most of the tournament.
Howell has 10 second place finishes, two this year – at Honolulu, where Paul Goydos came from behind to win by one shot, and at Torrey Pines, where Tiger Woods won by two shots.
Howell graduated from Westminster Schools of Augusta, and soon after attended Oklahoma State University. In 2000, he was a member of the winning team and also the individual winner at the NCAA Golf Championships with a record-setting 23-under-par performance. He turned professional that summer and finished third in his professional start on the PGA Tour. In 2001, he was the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
As for Mickelson, he will shrug off this latest setback and look ahead to the next tournament. No need for excessive analyses – he’s been here before. He played extremely well throughout the tournament and provided some of his trademarked “Mickelson Magic” on Sunday. His fairway shot on 12 hit Bogart’s tree, took a fortuitous bounce and settled 20 feet from the hole. The earlier chip with the hybrid on 10 from the fringe was simply a masterful golf shot.
There was more than enough drama and intrigue during the Open to keep the gallery engaged. From the conspicuous absence of Tiger Woods, to the improbable hole-in-one by Rich Beem to the jet-setting travails of Mickelson – the week had story lines aplenty. Fans who made the trip to Riviera enjoyed a great week of golf, the idyllic scene only interrupted occasionally by the mistimed sounds of hammers and nails from nearby construction sites and the din of the Met Life blimp hovering overhead.
Tiger A No Show
Woods skipped his hometown tournament in favor of an event more suited to his game, in order to keep his current streak intact. Tiger first played in the Nissan Open in 1992, when it was still called the Los Angeles Open, receiving a sponsor’s exemption as a 16-year-old amateur. He missed the cut that year and though his results have improved, it remains the tournament he’s competed in the most without earning a victory. All told, he has made 11 starts in the event, tallying four top-10s, including runner-up finishes in 1998 and 1999. Last year, he withdrew after two rounds due to flu-like symptoms.
“We’ve been very grateful he’s played our tournament that many times,” Tom Pulchinski, tournament director for the Nissan Open, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “He can’t play every year.”
Aces Are Wild
Rich Beem saw his 7-iron plunge into the cup for a hole-in-one and gave Riviera a celebration to remember. He leaped on the back of the red Nissan Altima behind the 14th tee and splayed his body on the roof, hugging his new prize. Beem is probably still treating the scorch marks from flinging himself on that blazing hot Nissan after his ace Saturday.
For some reason, Phil Mickelson seems to draw a lot of ire from golf fans who think he should be something more. But here’s one story about Mickelson that you can’t say anything negative about. He volunteered to pay the four-year college tuition of a total stranger, Holli Dobler, the daughter of former football star Conrad Dobler. Dobler’s wife became a quadriplegic after an accident, and most of their money has been spent on her medical bills and rehabilitation. Apparently, Mickelson heard about the plight of the Doblers and offered to pay for Holli’s college tuition; she’s a sophomore at Miami University in Ohio, where the current cost is $22,000 a year.
Kikuya Could Kill Ya
If you watched the Nissan Open telecast on CBS, you may have heard the commentators mention the “kikuya” grass. The following is an explanation from Riviera’s Head Pro Todd Yoshitake in an interview with PGA.com. “Kikuya is a special kind of grass that was originally imported from Africa. Riviera used to have polo fields and the grass was brought in for them. But soon the grass spread all over the course and actually is now predominant in the greater Los Angeles area. It’s a very thick, wiry grass. In terms of golf, the grass is thick and strong, and so any ball in the fairway will sit on top of it very well. It’s like having a perfect lie for every shot. Now if you end up in the rough, it’s just as penal there as it is helpful in the fairway. The grass just wraps around the ball. It’s real hard to control your shot and make solid contact out of it in the rough.”
The Sun Shines on Nissan… Finally!
Despite what the old Albert Hammond song says, it does rain in Southern California – especially when the PGA Tour comes to town. Though rain has wreaked havoc with the event almost every year since 2000, the weather Gods were finally kind to Nissan, the Japanese automaker who has been the title sponsor of this event since 1987.
It’s about time. Nissan has leveraged their sponsorship of the Riviera event to improve the quality of life in the communities in which they operate. Their corporate commitment to “Enriching Peoples Lives” has led the company into a partnership with the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce. In doing so, the Nissan Open has generated nearly $25 million that has supported numerous Los Angeles area youth projects that provide athletic, arts and recreational programs, including the “Ready to Learn” literacy project.
About the Tournament
In 1973, the event began its current relationship with Riviera, where it has been played every year since with the exception of 1998. In that year, Riviera was hosting the U.S. Senior Open later that year and, in an effort to preserve the course, the event was played at Valencia Country Club in Valencia, California.