PALM HARBOR — Always, it is about what might have been.
The putt that just about fell. The lead that almost held. The career that nearly shined.
Charles Howell is just now entering his prime years, and already has earned more money playing golf than all but 32 men in the history of the PGA Tour.
Still, it is not enough.
He was the tour's rookie of the year at 21, and one of the best players in the world at 22. He is the boy who wrote a letter to Jack Nicklaus at 7, and eventually played alongside his idol just as Nicklaus' return note suggested he someday might.
And, no, none of it is enough.
This is what happens when expectations run so far ahead of reality. No matter what time you arrive, there are those who wonder why you didn't get there sooner. And so it goes for Charles Howell, forever's phenom.
"Hopefully, if I fulfill half of the expectations, I'll have a hell of a career," Howell said.
For now, it still feels a bit like a tease. Just like Sunday's final round at the Transitions Championship. There he was, four holes to go and a share of the lead for the first time all week. Then came a bogey at 15. And a bogey at 16. And that familiar feeling there was something better lingering just out of Howell's reach.
It has been that way from the time he was declared America's superstar-in-waiting after a record-setting career at Oklahoma State. He was the guy who was going to make Tiger Woods sweat. The one who would make sponsors swoon.
And, for a short time, Howell appeared on his way. If he was not dominant, he was consistently good. Howell won lots of money and had his share of top 10s for quite a few seasons in a row.
The problem is everyone was waiting for more. And, instead of getting better, Howell got worse. It could have been that he did not work enough on his short game. It could have been that his confidence wavered. Or it could have been that he was never quite as talented as the world once believed.
Whatever the reason, Howell is not complaining. Nor is he giving up. He recently dropped longtime coach David Leadbetter, and says he is playing better than his current 143rd world ranking would suggest. At 29, he has plenty of golf ahead.
"I have always viewed the expectations as a positive, because if people didn't have them, it would mean they didn't think I was worth a lick," Howell said. "The downside to the expectations …"
For a moment, Howell is silent.
"No, there's nothing wrong with expectations. I would love to fulfill them, and I'm working my butt off to do that. I love the game too much not to work at it."
A victory Sunday would have been monumental for Howell. For one thing, he has not won a tour event in two years. It also would have been timely considering he became a die-hard Buccaneers fan when he moved to Orlando in 2000.
Howell met Ronde Barber at this tournament a few years ago and the two have become friends, with Howell using Barber's seats at Raymond James Stadium and Barber showing up at Innisbrook on Sunday.
Mostly, though, the victory would have guaranteed him a place in the Masters next month.
Howell grew up down the street from Augusta National, and he has never been shy about what the Masters means to him. With his performance and world ranking falling off the charts in 2008, Howell needed a victory in the first few months of this season to earn a spot at the Masters. He pulled off a similar victory in early 2007, but time is running short this time.
"Yeah, it's in my mind. It was in my mind today," he said. "But in a good way, for incentive to keep hanging in there. I've got two more weeks, and obviously I have to win a tournament to get in there.
"But, yeah, today I thought about it. Would have been something."
Howell, who has not missed the Masters since 2002, was asked if he could bear to watch if he did not qualify.
"I might caddie for Tiger in the Par-3," said Howell of the nine-hole Wednesday contest. "I'll work on that, actually.
"Oh, absolutely I'll watch it. I love it. You've got to watch it. I'm a golf fan, I'll watch every minute of it."
These days, no one is talking about Howell challenging Woods. They're not imagining the scene of a local boy wearing the green jacket of Augusta National.
Most of the world's expectations are beginning to fade for Charles Howell.
But, if it's all the same to you, Howell will keep his own expectations high.
John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.