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Long wait over as Howell returns to Kapalua after 11 years
In this Nov. 18, 2018, file photo Charles Howell III watches his drive off the second tee during the final round of the RSM Classic golf tournament in St. Simons Island, Ga. Howell's victory made him eligible to start the year on Maui for the first time in 11 years. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, file)

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — No tournament is harder to qualify for than the Sentry Tournament of Champions.

No one knows that as well as Charles Howell III.

With the final shot of 2018 on the PGA Tour, he holed a 15-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole to win the RSM Classic. That made him the final player to qualify for the winners-only field at Kapalua.

For Howell, that meant his first return to Maui in 11 years.

"In one sense, it feels like a lifetime ago," Howell said. "And in one sense, it feels like yesterday."

It all looked so familiar when he arrived, from turning down the road lined by Cook pines to the Ritz-Carlton, the sweeping views of the Pacific from the Plantation Course that was built on the side of a mountain, the familiar butterfly logo everywhere he looked.

And then he started doing the math.

In the 11 years since he was at Kapalua, Howell has teed it up 340 times on the PGA Tour until he won again, and even that wasn't easy. He had to birdie three of the last four holes just to get into a playoff at Sea Island, and the way he dropped to his knees when the winning putt dropped illustrated the size of the burden lifted.

Winning got him to paradise, which in Howell's case starts with the Masters. He grew up in Augusta, Georgia, his parents still live a short drive from Augusta National and he has had to watch the Masters on television the last six years.

But there was something special about Kapalua, too.

"You see the other guys around me, you see the field I'm in — Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy. And it's like, 'Holy cow, I'm in this field,'" Howell said. "There was a time I wondered that maybe I was not going to win anymore. I've had a good career. I'm proud of what I've done, and if it ends now, it would be good."

Now he's thinking about where it starts.

Dustin Johnson is the defending champion when the new year begins Thursday on a course with some of the widest fairways, biggest greens, sharp shifts in elevation and views of humpback whales breaching in the channel between Maui and Molokai.

It's where everyone wants to be at the start of the year, unless a schedule or the need for time off gets in the way. That's why Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose are the only 2018 winners not in the 34-man field. Woods hasn't played Kapalua since 2005, and he contemplated coming this year until the final few weeks having qualified by winning the Tour Championship, ending a five-year battle of back injuries.

Johnson and Thomas are playing for the fourth straight year, the longest active streak of winning on the PGA Tour. They know it's not easy to win, even though they have made it look that way at times.

"If it wasn't as hard, I would win more," Johnson said. "So, yeah, it is difficult. There's so many good players on the PGA Tour. Any week any guy that's playing in the field's got a chance to win and so it's just difficult to win."

The last time Howell was at Kapalua, the field featured 10 players now on the PGA Tour Champions. He didn't have specks of gray in his hair. He didn't have two children, ages 8 and 7. McIlroy was in his first full year as a pro. Woods only had 13 majors.

He has heard for too long that he should have won more than just three times on the PGA Tour, though his victory at Sea Island was popular just because he had to wait so long for the next one. So many expectations caused him to lose perspective. Howell still has amassed just over $37 million in career earnings, a product of consistency that most players would love to have.

"When I went to Oklahoma State, I didn't know I was going to play golf on the PGA Tour. I went there to see if I could, and that was my best shot," he said. "If you had told me I would play on the PGA Tour for 20 years and never lose my card, I'd take that in a heartbeat. Sometimes, we lose that perspective."

In the days before he flew over, Howell found a familiar, understated letter in his mailbox — his invitation to the Masters for winning at Sea Island.

His last appearance at his hometown event was in 2012.

"The best Christmas present you could get," he said. "I hadn't thought about it because I hadn't gotten on in so long I forgot they did that. In this modern world we live in, I'm surprised they didn't text the invitation."

He has never been so eager about playing the Masters, mainly so daughter Ansley and son Chase can see the course, caddie in the Par 3 Tournament and be at Augusta during its most magical week, and not just to visit their grandparents.

He appreciates being at Kapalua more than the other two trips, just like he'll look at this Masters differently from his other eight appearances.

"I've never enjoyed that tournament before. It was always bigger than life," Howell said. "I wanted to play so well that I probably over prepared for it. This time, with the kids being there for the Par 3, I'll make it a point to enjoy the event."