As he practiced on the range at TPC Sawgrass Wednesday, Charles Howell continuously checked his alignment using a shaft that lay in front of his toes. One after another, he took dead aim and hit short irons at the flags.
Anthony Kim is the young gun of the moment after an impressive win at the Wachovia Championship last week, but not too long ago Howell was pegged as the next can't-miss kid. A two-time All-American at Oklahoma State, he'd won the NCAA championship in 2000 and was the PGA Tour's rookie of the year in 2001. The skinny kid had a swing that made his coach, David Leadbetter, gush with pride. His power seemed effortless, he hit laser-like irons and some prognosticators even thought he could give his buddy, Tiger Woods, a run for his money.
Over the past six years, Howell has won twice and made two Presidents Cup teams, but the 28-year-old from Augusta, Ga., has never been a factor at a major. His best performance is a tie for 10th at the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
Last December Howell signed an endorsement deal with Bridgestone and ended a long relationship with Callaway Golf. When asked why he switched, he very politely refused to explain. "I really can't answer that one," he said. "I mean, I know you've got to ask, but ..."
After plenty of testing at Bridgestone's facility in Covington, Ga., and on the range at Isleworth Country Club in Orlando, where he lives, Howell now plays the Bridgestone J36 cavity back irons (3-6) and J36 blades (7-PW).
"Honestly, it's just a whole lot of trial and error. Bridgestone opened up their doors to me and said, 'What do you want? What are you looking for?' We sat down and talked about the look I'm after, and then what I want the clubs to do. They built a lot and I hit a lot."
One unique aspect of Howell's irons is that they have more bounce than standard. "I have quite a bit of lag in my golf swing, and I take pretty large divots," he explained. By adding bounce to his irons, the leading edges do not dig into the turf through impact. It's the same principal that allows a high-bounce sand wedge to work easily in bunkers.
But for Howell, like most pros who switch manufacturers, the mental adjustments are the toughest part of an equipment change. "It's just trusting that the golf ball is going to do what you want it to do. Trusting what the irons are going to do and trusting the distance it's going to go." Only time, hard work and good results can create that.
Howell's only top-10 finish this season was a tie for eighth at the limited-field, no-cut Mercedes Benz Championship at Kapalua.
"Obviously when you've played with another company's stuff for eight years, there is a learning curve," he said before shooting 79-74 and missing the cut this week. "My golf game is getting a little better, but I just haven't scored very well so far this year."
The stats indicate that Howell's new irons have not been a magic bullet for his game — he is hitting 64.42% of the greens in regulation in 2008, up just 1.05% from last season.
But when the subject of his putter came up, Howell seemed more upbeat.
"I'm using the TaylorMade Spider putter and it's been good. It's a little different look, but man, it's extremely stable."
Howell's Spider has a small amount of toe-drop, meaning it's not completely face-balanced like other large-head or mallet-style putters. "You would think that it would want to go straight back and straight through, but it really wants to go on a little arc," he noted. "The other thing about the Spider is that no matter where I hit it on the face, it always rolls out the same. You don't have to hit it dead-nuts in the center."
Howell is capable of winning again. He is still young, his work ethic is solid and his swing still looks great. As he and his new irons get more acquainted, there is no reason why he can't still fulfill all those lofty expectations.