A PGA veteran’s callous joke about blackface and Tiger Woods turned into a lesson on empathy

At last year’s US Open, Charles Howell III told a story that might have ended his career. Now, he says he’s a changed man.

There are many pro golfers who wax and wane, and there are a few players who endure. For two decades, Charles Howell III has been one of the most consistent players on the PGA Tour. Since turning professional in 2000, “Chucky Three Sticks” has amassed 90 top-10 tournament finishes, including three wins and 19 second-place finishes. He has accumulated $40 million in winnings while barely making a ripple on the general sports conscience because, at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, Howell has been playing in the shadows of Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and other bigger, stronger athletes.

As befits a player with such a strong record, Howell has made multiple appearances in the game’s major tournaments: the PGA, The Open, the Masters and the US Open. In 2019, Howell qualified for the US Open, which was being held at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California.

The competition on the course last year was amazing, with a resurgent Woods, fresh off a win at the Masters, in contention on the course where he had played perhaps the greatest golf ever in winning the championship in 2000. The combination of an iconic course and a stalking Woods made for a US Open that captured the interest of even the most casual of golf fans.

I had been invited to the tournament by one of the corporate sponsors of the USGA, the organization that owns and operates the US Open. One of the perks was the opportunity to attend private post-round interviews with players, including Howell, in the sponsor’s hospitality tent beside the 18th fairway. As a golf journalist, I was familiar with Howell as a player, but I didn’t know much about him personally. While he wasn’t a contender to win (Howell finished tied for 52nd, 17 strokes behind winner Gary Woodland), I decided to attend to get some insight into how a physically unremarkable guy had willed himself to a remarkable career.

Todd Lewis of the Golf Channel was slated to ask Howell and fellow pro Patrick Cantlay about how the players thought they did, what their chances were, the difficulty of the course, etc. Typically, the players’ answers would match the banality of the questions.

But after a couple of softballs, Lewis started describing a story that Howell had shared with him when asked for an amusing anecdote. “You all remember the night Tiger Woods hit the fire hydrant with his car, right?” The 75 or so people in the tent laughed nervously and nodded, unsure why the 2009 accident outside Orlando, Florida, that contributed to Woods’ tragic fall was being raised at the national championship.

Charles Howell III plays his shot from the 15th tee during the second round of the BMW Championship on the North Course at Olympia Fields Country Club on Aug. 28 in Olympia Fields, Illinois.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Lewis continued: “Now just to set the scene, there were reporters crews, camera crews, outside the gates of Isleworth from all over the world. I mean, it must’ve been 150 to 200 people there. There were helicopters flying above, trying to get pictures of Tiger’s house, the hydrant, Tiger, whomever. And looking for [his then-wife] Elin. Well, Charles decided he’d have some fun with all of that. Charles, pick up the story from there.”

Howell then told a story about how he thought it would be funny to punk the media looking for Woods. “So, a friend of mine in the community drives a black Escalade, very similar to Tiger’s. Now, this idea should have ended there because [Woods] had wrapped his Escalade around a fire hydrant and wasn’t driving it. But we took the black Escalade and a friend of ours, who happened to be a blond female. So, we put her in the front seat, OK?”

“And then I took a lot of shoe polish and magic marker and whatnot. And I made myself look like Tiger … I put on a black Nike hat with a black Nike swoosh and we drove out the front gate really slow and they thought they found [Tiger and Elin]. And we saw how far around Orlando we could drive these people … we drove to Disney. And, basically, they were following us, right. … Literally, we drove through Disney, we drove to Universal Studios and we just kept driving. As far as we could do that. They thought they had found Tiger.”

I was sitting about 15 feet from Howell. I couldn’t tell what was making me angrier: the ignorant, callous story or the laughter that was coming from the crowd. I moved to the back of the room and tried to compose myself. Did he really just publicly admit to wearing blackface as a joke? I knew that I would respond, but I didn’t yet know exactly what that response would be and the impact it would have on me, on Howell and on the game of golf.

My parents moved from the segregated South to Washington in the ’50s to make a life of opportunity for themselves and their children. They succeeded, and their reward was a resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Along with my sister and two brothers, I grew up never feeling limited because of my race. I attended the prestigious Sidwell Friends School, enrolling shortly after the school was integrated. When I graduated in 1980, I was the first African American male to attend the school from kindergarten through 12th grade. Sidwell was overwhelmingly white, but I recall ethnic and economic differences making no difference there. But living in America, I was familiar with racism and bigotry.

We lived in a mostly Black neighborhood, and my school friends and my neighborhood friends were of very different hues and castes. My father was a human resources specialist for the State Department and one of the people responsible for establishing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, so we were always aware of systemic racial injustice and the toll it took on the country. My father also spent two decades in the Army Reserve and would brook no disrespect from those closest to him, much less from anyone attempting to discriminate against him. If he sensed racism in an interaction, he would react with the fury of a man who grew up in South Carolina, a state where sitting in the wrong seat or smiling at the wrong woman could cost you your life.

Golf was not a part of my upbringing. I had been to a driving range or golf course only a handful of times as an adult when, at the age of 41, I took a job as the marketing and communications director for the operator of the three National Park Service golf courses in Washington. I quickly became infatuated with the game. Part of the fascination was trying to improve as a player, but the far more engaging aspect was the extraordinary places that host golf’s finest courses and the wonderful people you meet who frequent and operate them.

After seven memorable years managing courses, I became a member of the golf media, one of only a few minorities to host a golf radio show in a major market for a network affiliate (CBS Radio). In 2014, I was named Media Person of the Year for the Middle Atlantic PGA Section, making me the first and only person of color to win an award in any category in the 90-year history of the section. Sadly, six years later that is still the case.

Over the last 17 years, I have found those who love golf to be among the most fair-minded people I have ever met. But I also experienced the fact that people of color are at times a rare and sometimes unwanted presence. I have become accustomed to being the only African American in any clubhouse, media gathering or industry meeting. And there is often the assumption that if a Black man is present at an elite golf course or resort, he must be a part of the staff. If I had a round of golf at Augusta National for every time someone handed me the keys to park their car or asked me to put their bag on a cart, well, I’d have more experience at Augusta than most of the players on the tour.

As I stood in the room at Pebble Beach last year, my roots in the game were in the distant past and the events of summer 2020 were still in the future. The only thing on my mind was finding the proper way to respond to what Howell had said.

Earlier that year, there had been calls for the resignation of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam because of the discovery of blackface pictures of him that were 35 years old. The fact that a public figure such as Howell could tell that story seemed to me either the height of arrogance, colossally self-destructive or a combination of the two.

I decided to wait until the question-and-answer portion of the talk to address the issue with Howell. Several people asked questions, but none had to do with the blackface comment. I could feel the eyes on me in the room, wondering if I was going to do it. I wasn’t sure myself. I was there as a guest and I didn’t want to blow the event up. But as a journalist and as a man, I had to address this.

Tiger Woods (right) shares a joke with Charles Howell III (left) during their practice round at the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England, on July 16, 2003.

ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

When I felt that the last question had been asked and answered, I raised my hand. I said that I had a question and a comment. First, I asked a question about how he had managed to be so persistent in his career, mostly to make sure that my voice would not be shaking with anger. He answered but I barely heard it because my mind was searching for the right words to raise the blackface story.

And then I decided to just say it like I felt it. “Charles, I want you to do yourself a favor and never, ever tell that story in public again, because it’s embarrassing and it’s ignorant. And in one moment you could blow up everything you’ve worked 20 years to achieve. You just don’t know what you’ve said, and it’s so dangerous and so offensive and you need to never ever do it again.” The room was silent. Howell seemed puzzled. He looked at me and said, “Well, I don’t know … they asked me for a funny story. And I gave him this one. Sorry …”

The awkward exchange brought an end to the event. Afterward, about 20 people came up to me and said that they were glad I had said something. The PGA Tour representative there had Howell come over and apologize to me, which was basically, “I’m sorry if you were offended.” (Later that day, I met with Lewis, who said Howell hadn’t previously told him the part about donning blackface.)

After Howell’s lukewarm apology, I was livid all over again, but also conflicted. This was my favorite tournament. I didn’t want to blow up the entire week because of something that one guy said.

What I wanted to do was to take this incident and do some good with it. Rather than make a “gotcha” out of it and destroy this guy’s life, I wanted to see if that’s the way he really felt and, if it really was, to help him see things differently. I wanted to tell the story of the aftermath of that day at Pebble Beach. If it was a positive story, great. If it was the story of somebody who had no remorse, then so be it. But I was determined that I would, in my own time, tell the story.

Charles Gordon Howell III seemed destined to be a professional golfer. He was born June 20, 1979, the son of a pediatric surgeon, in Augusta, Georgia. Howell noted, “In a lot of towns, a lot of cities, you know, the cool thing is to play basketball or football. But in Augusta, we have this little tournament called the Masters that rolls around every April. Myself, and a lot of other kids in the area, we were introduced to golf via the Masters.”

Howell excelled in junior golf tournaments, earning a reputation as one of the best young players in the country. But the combination of a privileged upbringing and playing a privileged sport in a city segregated by race and class — as well as his tendency to be an introvert — put Howell in a social bubble that is common among professional golfers. Ironically, golf also provided young Howell an opportunity to play at the local public course with the Black men who made their living caddying at Augusta National. “The caddies taught me how to play the game,” Howell said. “They taught me the importance of short game. And they taught me a little bit about the art of gambling and trash-talking.”

He earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State University, one of the most storied programs in college golf, which has produced no fewer than 50 PGA Tour professionals. Howell was a three-time All-American and winner of the NCAA men’s individual championship his junior year. He seemed a lock for stardom on the PGA Tour. But by the time Howell joined the pro ranks, Woods was already changing the game with a combination of skill and power.

Musician Kenny G (left) opens the annual PGA Tour awards ceremony with the tour’s 2001 Player of the Year, Tiger Woods (center), and Rookie of the Year, Charles Howell III (right), on Jan. 30, 2002, in Monterey, California.

Chris Condon/PGA TOUR/Getty Images

Howell had been aware of Woods since they both were junior golfers, but coming from opposite sides of the country, they did not play against each other. Once on the pro tour, though, he saw the majesty of Woods’ game. Like every golfer who has competed against him, Howell speaks of Woods in reverent tones. “It was Tiger and it was everybody else. He changed the whole world. He changed the whole golfing world to where he made golf cool.”

In 2003, Howell moved to Isleworth, Florida, an exclusive gated community near Orlando that many of the world’s top professionals call home. They are attracted by the sunshine, the luxurious amenities and the absence of a state income tax. On any given day, you might see top-10 golfers playing practice rounds together while laying side bets that would be a month’s rent for most people.

Once there, he established a cordial, if not close relationship, with Woods, whose superstardom put him at arm’s length for all except his family and a select group in his circle. “Tiger liked me because I minded my own business, I practice hard and I never got in his way. He’d let me tag along sometimes and that turned into working out together in the morning. We’d play and practice all day, then maybe a quick dinner at night. It turned into sort of a, a practice buddy, if you will.”

Three years after Howell joined the tour, he and Woods were both selected for the 2003 Presidents Cup, an international team competition. Howell and his wife joined Woods and his wife on a private jet ride to the event, which was held that year near Cape Town, South Africa. Woods also provided a boost of confidence and mentorship. “Hey, listen, you’re going to see how good you are this week, No. 1,” Howell recalls Woods saying. “And No. 2 is I got you. You just stay under my wing all week. I’ll show you everything.” Howell partnered with Woods in every pairs match in the competition, and he got his first look at what life was like for Woods on the golf course. “I never appreciated it until then. My goodness, like this guy is a walking bull’s-eye. Like, everywhere you go, there’s 35 photographers, there’s 25 cameras. I’m like, ‘How do you do it?’ And he would just look at me and just laugh.”

Over time, the connection between the two men faded. “I haven’t had a long conversation with him in a long while,” said Howell. “He became very private and to himself as the years have gone on.”

In some ways, Howell was fortunate that day at Pebble Beach. I was the only journalist in the room and the only one recording it. The crowd in the room was forgiving. I decided not to go public with it immediately; the scandal of a tape of a tour player joking about wearing blackface would have been difficult to weather, for the tour and for Howell. But Howell’s sponsor required that he undergo racial sensitivity training. It was during those sessions that Howell realized the gravity of what had happened, and how much worse it could have gone for him.

“I spent six hours with this gentleman who works in diversity, inclusivity. And I said, ‘I want to know it all,’ ” recounted Howell. “I said, ‘I’ve lived my whole life not wanting to upset a soul, I mean, to a fault. And I’ve been a Christian in my faith, something I’m extremely proud of. I don’t want to hurt anybody.’ What did I learn? The concept of intent versus impact.”

Howell described how the counselor explained it. “Let’s just be honest. There are some people who intend to hurt other people. But Charles, there’s a lot of people, like you on that day, where there’s zero intent whatsoever. But you did hurt someone. And that’s when it hit me, like, ‘Holy cow, thank you. I’ve got to understand and learn better.’ ”

Charles Howell III at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club on May 13, 2015, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Howell said he fell into a period of depression that prompted more counseling. Afterward, he sought advice and insight from the Black people in his life. “I set off on a whole lot of conversations, a whole lot of group messages, a whole lot of group chats, everything. And I reached out to a lot of different people. … What can I learn? What can I do?”

Bruce Berryman is a 43-year-old sports performance specialist who works with a number of elite athletes in the Orlando area, including Howell. The two struck up an acquaintance in the gym that evolved into a professional and personal relationship. Howell says that Berryman is “one of my best friends … I love him.”

Berryman has nothing but good things to say about Howell. “[Charles] has this amazing ability to adapt very well as an athlete. And one of the first things that drew me to Charles was his character. … He’s always been an upstanding guy and always been straightforward with me and, and very respectful.”

Berryman is a faithful friend to Howell, but he is also an African American, familiar with racism and its cancerous effect on society. When asked about the conversations he had with Howell about the blackface incident, Berryman processes it through both of those filters.

“Knowing Charles, I know where it came from. It came from a place of really trying to tell something funny,” he said. “I definitely can see how it could be taken differently, for sure. But like I said, knowing him and knowing his character, it wasn’t being told in a way to demean anyone.”

Berryman said he explained to Howell about schisms in society that his life and career had shielded him from, the kinds of experiences that were fueling the unrest in the country.

“Growing up, I experienced racial discrimination and police profiling. And we talked about, you know, the conversation that is very common in the Black community, the conversations I had with my father telling me how to say ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir.’ Cops pull you over, have your registration already out, keep your hands on the steering wheel, you know, look them in the eye. So we have that conversation because, you know, he never had that conversation or had to experience dealing with that.”

“So in that regard, his eyes opened up, like, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world,’ ” Berryman said.

After the protests began over George Floyd’s death while in police custody in May, Howell reached out to PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and fellow tour professional Harold Varner III, one of the few African Americans currently on the tour, to listen to ideas and offer suggestions for how golf could make a meaningful impact. In mid-July, he announced on Instagram that he was partnering with the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA), a small professional golf circuit that serves as a gateway for minority golfers to sharpen their game in hopes of ascending to the PGA Tour. “I believe in a better America, and I want to be a part of the solution,” he wrote. An article in Golfweek reported that he planned to donate $50 for every birdie and $100 for every eagle that he makes on the PGA Tour to the APGA.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s US Open was moved from its traditional mid-June slot to Thursday through Sunday at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. I wanted to meet with Howell around the anniversary of last year’s competition, but the restrictions around travel and access made scheduling difficult. We finally managed to get together in Greensboro, North Carolina, in August before the Wyndham Championship, one of the events that had been rescheduled due to the temporary shutdown of the tour this spring. (Howell finished 13-under in a five-way for fourth place.)

“I spent six hours with this gentleman who works in diversity, inclusivity. … What did I learn? The concept of intent versus impact.” — Charles Howell III

As I prepared for the five-hour drive from my home in Washington, any feelings of trepidation that I had about the trip were connected to traveling. I had been sheltering against COVID-19 since late March. I normally log 20,000 miles a year in air travel, but in 2020 I had barely seen the other side of my own city. When I arrived, the hotel lobby was almost deserted, the complete opposite of the typical hustle and bustle of the host hotel at a PGA Tour event.

I suspected that some self-preservation instincts would kick in for Howell before our interview, prompted by Howell’s manager floating the idea — contradicted by my tape from the event — that he had not actually done the blackface prank, but was repeating a story he had heard about two teens who had done it. I worried that the announcement of the donation to the Advocates Tour was an attempt to put “foam on the runway” before my story about Pebble Beach became public. But whenever I talked or texted with Howell before our meeting, he assured me that he trusted me to tell the story fairly, so I persisted with my efforts to meet in person, confident that once in the room with him I would be able to assess his sincerity.

We met on a Wednesday morning in a conference room at the hotel. As I waited for Howell to arrive, I took the measure of my own emotions. This was a meeting that was a full year in the making, and I wanted to be sure my motivations were in the right place. The Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice had impacted me. I resolved to make the interview not be about any perceived grievance or reckoning for things outside of the events that had occurred at Pebble Beach.

I had a mask on when he arrived. But he immediately took off his mask, so I took a deep breath and did the same. In a nod to his faith and mine, I asked him if he minded if I said a prayer before we began. He smiled and said, “Yes, please.” I said a short prayer, thanking God for bringing us together and asking that he use our meeting and our relationship to make a positive change in the world.

As our conversation evolved, I found a man who had gone through more than just counseling. Howell had been through a transformation and was unafraid to talk about it. He told me that what happened that day and the counseling that followed affected his relationships, his playing ability and his mental and spiritual well-being.

He told me he wanted to see if he could make what he called “the worst day of my life” into something positive. I found someone who had gone a long way from the person who gave a cursory apology for a very hurtful story. Howell told me, “Michael, I’m sorry about what happened, but I went through a lot just because I knew how much I had hurt you.”

It became clear that our interaction at Pebble Beach was far more impactful for him than it was for me. Golfers are unique because they are required to know the rules and call penalties on themselves. Howell had come to understand that he had made two mistakes, the clumsy blackface prank and the use of it as an amusing anecdote, and he was calling the penalty on himself.

He said that he felt he had hurt and embarrassed me. The truth was I was angry, but I was embarrassed for him, not myself. I also found it incredible he would be so concerned about the response of one individual that he would be prompted to go through all that he had been through, but he insisted that was the case. He said the interaction with me had triggered a chain reaction, and when he shared what had happened at Pebble Beach with the Black people in his life and understood how hurtful it was to them, it added to the pain and to his sense of debt and burden. He also told me that from the time in mid-June when he agreed to speak with me for this story, he felt he had begun to play better. “It just feels like a weight has lifted,” said Howell.

I applaud the work he’s doing now with the minority golf tour, but it’s important that the real reasons that spurred this be told. Otherwise, this is just another person saying, “I have some extra money, let me throw it at a couple of people who have a little bit less.” Howell has redoubled his efforts with the Advocates Tour, providing not only cash but his time by mentoring young players, providing tee times and instruction to players who have talent but lack the connections and intangibles that make the difference between tour dreams and tour titles. He is also rallying his fellow PGA pros and the tour itself to invest in the APGA tour or other efforts to promote diversity, equality and social justice. If he sustains his efforts, it is quite possible that Howell’s impact off the course will outstrip his playing accomplishments.

“Some amazing things are happening around the Advocates Tour and some other things we are doing. I hope the momentum continues,” he said. “We are really affecting lives in a positive way and I love it.”

It’s tempting to think that Howell is just trying to buy a good reputation. But the truth is more complex than that. The hole that he’s seeking to fill is not only in society and in the community — he’s seeking to fill a hole within himself.

At the end of this story, two people who were strangers become friends. I know that because he said so. During one of our conversations to arrange the Greensboro meeting, Howell said to me, “Michael, I’m sorry that this all happened. But in a way, I’m glad because I’m a better person because it happened. And I got to meet you because it happened. And I can tell you that you’re going to have a friend for life because of what this is.”

I accept Charles’ friendship and he has mine. And I tell this story in the spirit of friendship and spirit of service to the wider community, because we can all use a story of redemption right now. I sat down with Charles for a face-to-face conversation. We talked about what had happened during the past year. We talked as colleagues in the golf world. And we talked as people who have a unique relationship because of what happened in a different conversation a year ago. It is my hope and his that this can serve as a template for others, an example of the curative powers of patience and understanding.

Liner Notes

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Michael Williams is a writer, radio host and television commentator based in Washington, D.C. He covers politics for Voice of America and is a member of the USGA Golf Journal editorial board. He met the Dalai Lama and Mike Tyson in the same year. He made his first hole in one in April of last year.