Catching Up With … 1988 APL Champion Ralph Howe

First left-hander to win USGA championship now has a higher calling

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Ralph Howe III displays the medal for winning the 1988 U.S. Amateur Public Links recently. His calling has
taken him off the golf course and into his ministry work.
(John Mummert/USGA)

Jan. 21, 2010

Ralph Howe III, the first left-handed USGA champion and 1988 APL titlist now serves the Orlando, Fla., community as a pastor in the Discovery Church Ministry.

By David Shefter, USGA

Orlando, Fla. – In a non-descript back corner of Discovery Church sits an office adorned by three framed pictures of the Old Course at St. Andrews. Another frame features a reprint of Hy Peskin’s iconic Ben Hogan image from the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, where he’s hitting a 1-iron to the 18th green.

 

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 A few family photos offset the plethora of theological titles residing on a multi-level bookshelf.

 
Across from the desk a classic persimmon idly sits. The club, which hasn’t been hit in 20 years, now serves as a thinking stick much the same way Tom Cruise used a baseball bat to develop ideas in the movie “A Few Good Men.”

Next to the desk is an electric guitar.

Eclectic office props? Perhaps. But once the story of its main inhabitant is revealed, everything fits perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle.

Ralph Howe III’s unorthodox journey has taken him from the mountaintop of amateur golf, where he became the first left-handed USGA champion at the 1988 U.S. Amateur Public Links and received the first Masters invitation for that event’s winner, to representing his country at the 1989 Walker Cup Match, to playing for cash in such faraway places as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, to his current vocation as a pastor within the Discovery Church Ministries.

Not exactly a Billy Graham or Oral Roberts story.

In a way Howe, now 44, was like any other elite-level golfer who dreamed of finding riches on the PGA Tour. He just reached a point where his golf clubs couldn’t cash enough paychecks.

So the West Sayville, N.Y., native chose a unique career path.

“I would say with a break here or a break there he might not be preaching right now,” says longtime friend and golf instructor Tom Patri, who splits time between Friar’s Head in Long Island and The Quarry in Naples, Fla. “He might be hoisting trophies somewhere. I wouldn’t say that’s an unbelievable stretch. He had big talent.”

For whatever reason – and Howe says there are many – professional golf didn’t deliver the same fulfillment of his amateur days. Seven times he tried PGA Tour Qualifying School and only once did he reach the final stage. He competed one season on the Nationwide Tour (1994), earning just under $20,000 in 25 starts. He won on the Hooters Tour. He collected a few mini-tour wins. He traveled to Asia and nearly won the Hong Kong Open with the likes of David Frost, Colin Montgomerie and Corey Pavin in the field. He made unsuccessful attempts to qualify for the Canadian and European tours.

Howe discovered he was writing more checks than cashing them.

“I was the leading money spender on tour,” says Howe.

But as he went deeper into poverty, Howe discovered a new love.

During down time on tour, he formed fellowships through bible studies. While Howe was raised with Christian values, he admitted to ignoring his faith during his teenage and college years. Behind the scenes, he even mocked some of his more religious teammates at Florida Southern.

But en route from Long Island to Florida to embark on a professional golf career, Howe had an epiphany. Despite all his amateur accomplishments – the APL title, competing in the Masters and Walker Cup, being a NCAA Division II All-American and playing on a national championship team – Howe felt unfulfilled.

So when he arrived in Florida, he contacted those same teammates he once ridiculed. His first call was to Gregg Gamester. And suddenly Howe was voraciously reading the bible and participating in the fellowship with several other golfers, including another college teammate and future two-time U.S. Open champion, Lee Janzen.

“Over a period of several months, I came to a place where I believed the bible message,” says Howe.

He joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and once he retired from the touring-pro life in 1998, he became the chaplain on the Nationwide Tour for 6½ years, where he worked with players and caddies. Among his constituents were future Masters champion Zach Johnson, whom he befriended immediately, and past USA Walker Cup Team member and current PGA Tour member Jonathan Byrd.

Howe also became a volunteer at Discovery Church, a non-denominational Protestant ministry, which is where he met his wife, Melinda. Once their first child, Riley, was born, Howe realized the grind of traveling 100 days a year on the Nationwide Tour was taking its toll on the family. A full-time position opened up at Discovery Church’s newly opened Southwest Campus and Howe was hired in October of 2004. He’s been with the ministry ever since.

While Howe preaches six to eight times a year, often in front of 2,000 people, his true satisfaction comes from intimate spiritual relationships with individuals, whether it’s via bible studies or one-on-one sessions. Howe often relates past golf experiences into religious messages.

“He’s very comfortable in front of people with a good sense of humor,” says Janzen, who has witnessed several of Howe’s sermons and occasionally plays golf with his ex-teammate. “He does a much better job than I would.”

Adds Patri: “Obviously he has found a gift. He inspires with that message. It’s kind of neat for me because he found where he was supposed to be.”

Untold Story

Many of Discovery Church’s staff and congregation don’t know Howe’s story. His bio on the Web site briefly discusses his professional accomplishments, but there’s no mention of him winning the 1988 APL or playing in the Masters.

But spend a day at Discovery Church and it’s not uncommon to see Howe pacing his office or walking the corridors with his persimmon driver, especially in the days leading up to a sermon. He simply thinks better with the golf club in hand.

During down time, Howe might be found alone in his office jamming on his guitar, playing chords from blues or classic rock artists such as Stevie Ray Vaughn or Eric Clapton. “I’m no Peter Jacobsen,” he says while playing a few lines from “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles. ( Jacobsen, the 2004 U.S. Senior Open champion, participated in a band with the late Payne Stewart and Paul Azinger called Jake Trout and The Flounders).

A few of Discovery Church’s professional musicians sometimes will shut their doors when Howe starts strumming to drown out the noise. One staff member, John Parrott, has traded music lessons for golf tips. Parrott caddies for Howe for U.S. Open local qualifying each spring.

“I love working at the church because there are great musicians here,” said Howe. “It was my No. 1 hobby when I was playing [professional golf] as a single person.”

On a quiet Tuesday in December, Howe gives three visitors a tour of Discovery Church’s main campus in jeans and grey golf shirt. “We don’t do ties around here,” says Howe, explaining the casual atmosphere.

Howe takes a seat on a couch and begins to lead a group of 10 co-workers in a short bible studies session. He adeptly tells a biblical story and begins to equate the struggles of the main character into everyday life. Lively debate continues for the next 20 minutes as participants analyze the tale.

For Howe, it’s about the message, not the method.

During a sermon on the Ten Commandments Howe took out a 7-iron and hit foam golf balls into the audience. He explained that the parameters a golf course are no different than rules outlined by the Ten Commandments and that in golf, like life, it’s important to play the game within those boundaries.

Not long after Johnson won the 2007 Masters, Discovery Church’s senior pastor David Loveless brought him up on stage and asked a simple question: “So whose presence did you feel more on Sunday afternoon, God or Tiger Woods?” Johnson answered with a smile: “Is there a difference?”

Johnson has since moved from the Orlando area to Sea Island, Ga., and no longer is a Discovery Church regular. While he attended the church, Howe once joked with the audience that Discovery Church “was a really cool place to hang out. Not only do we have a guy who won the Masters, but we have someone who finished last in the Masters.”

But Howe’s golf background often comes in handy with new members. If he discovers they like to play, he’ll take them out for a casual round. It’s a way to get to know people in an informal setting. He tells the Discovery staff that it’s “church fund-raising.”

“A lot of careers come to a halt and that’s it,” said Tommy Gamboli, Howe’s high school golf coach who retired in 2008 after 42 years at Sayville High. “In his situation, he’s touching a lot of people in what he’s doing.”

Genesis Of A Champion

The son of two physical education teachers, Howe was introduced to sports at a young age. He played basketball and football, but gravitated to golf through his father, also named Ralph. He was a scratch player. During his Army days at Ft. Bragg near Fayetteville, N.C., Ralph II befriended a young Raymond Floyd, whose dad, L.B., was a local golf professional.

 

howeins220100120 
The 36-hole final in the APL was a classic.
The two players combined for 16 birdies
and of the 13 holes won, 11 were by birdie.
Howe won on the first extra hole. (USGA Museum)
During the summers, Ralph II worked as a starter at Middle Island (N.Y.) Country Club, a public facility in Suffolk County. When his young son started playing, it was Ralph II who called Ray Floyd to ask if he should play right- or left-handed. Floyd said he should play from whatever side he hit it the farthest.

So Ralph Howe III remained a lefty. When he was 8, Howe snuck his way into a golf camp run by Gamboli. Although the camp was for kids between the ages of 9 and 16, the young Howe already had the acumen to beat everybody on the short six-hole course.

Unfortunately, Howe’s junior golf days never carried over to the national stage. Division I golf powers didn’t knock down doors to recruit him. It was Patri, the 1981 NCAA Division II individual titlist, who recommended Howe to Florida Southern coach Charley Matlock. Patri was a mentor to Howe in Long Island, so Howe left the confines of the Northeast in the fall of 1983 for Lakeland, Fla.

His initiation to college golf came his freshman season during team qualifying. Howe shot a 73 and thought that might be good enough to lead. Then he went to the board and saw that Janzen, then a sophomore, had posted a 63. “I thought he cheated,” said Howe, recalling the moment. “Then the next day he shoots 62. That’s when I said to myself, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ ”

It took Howe a couple of years – he redshirted in 1984-85 – to elevate his game. Being around a couple of future champions didn’t hurt. Besides Janzen, Howe also played a season with Rocco Mediate and Marco Dawson. Another teammate was Pat Chisholm, whose father, Thomas, served on the USGA Executive Committee from 1990-96. Mediate dazzled Howe with his talent. He once shot a 29 for nine holes and despite pleading from Howe and others to continue, decided to head back to campus because as Howe remembers, “He was bored. He would hit 1-irons out of divots because he would be bored on the range. I had never seen anything like that.”

By his senior season, Howe was starting to set goals, and the biggest was to somehow earn a Masters invitation. In 1988, Augusta National overhauled its criteria for amateur invitations, taking away USA Walker Cup and World Amateur Team members and replacing them with the winners of the U.S. Amateur Public Links, U.S. Mid-Amateur and British Amateur and the two U.S. Amateur finalists.

Howe wasn’t eligible for the Mid-Amateur (25 and older), so he had three avenues. He had never been overseas so he asked his parents if they would fund a trip to Royal Porthcawl in Wales for the British Amateur. They agreed to make it his graduation gift. Because of an earlier  Eastern Amateur triumph and low handicap, Howe got into the British Amateur field. However, his run there ended in the quarterfinals.

A few weeks later at the prestigious Metropolitan Golf Association’s Ike Tournament at Garden City (N.Y.) Golf Club, Howe birdied the 17th hole in the final round to pull even with Robert Burns. But at the par-3 18th, Howe disappointingly three-putted from 30 feet to share second place with George Zahringer.

“He certainly caught everyone’s attention at the Ike,” says Gene Westmoreland, the recently retired director of rules and competitions for the MGA. “He had that classical, beautiful left-handed swing. When he did well at the Public Links [two weeks later], it was a surprise, but not a shock.”

Frustrated by the final-hole meltdown, Howe spent the next two weeks getting up at 4:30 a.m. to work on his short game. Once on site in Jackson Hole, Wyo., he felt prepared for the challenge. The field boasted of several elite players, including defending champion Kevin Johnson and 1986 winner Billy Mayfair, who had added the U.S. Amateur title the previous summer becoming the first winner of both championships.

Howe easily qualified for match play and as he was polishing off a 4-and-3 third-round win over Mike Dunphy, Robert Gamez, an All-American at the University of Arizona, came by to introduce himself after a 7-and-5 rout.

“He walks 100 yards out of his way to the 15th tee and says to me, ‘I’m Robert Gamez, I just shot seven under through [13] holes. I’ll see you tomorrow on the first tee.’ ”

The mild-mannered Howe wasn’t intimidated by the gamesmanship. In fact, it might have motivated him. After a 2-and-1 quarterfinal win over the Las Vegas native and future Walker Cup teammate, he delivered a comeback that’s not befitting of his Christian beliefs.

“I stuck out my hand and said, ‘My name is Ralph Howe and I just beat you, 2 and 1.’ It was good-natured.”

The 36-hole final against Johnson, the defending champion, was a classic. The two players combined for 16 birdies and of the 13 holes won, 11 were by birdie. Howe shot the equivalent of 66 in the morning and led by only two holes.

Johnson, holding a 1-up lead, had a chance to close out the match at the 35th hole but missed from 15 feet. Given a reprieve, Howe reached the par-5 36th hole in two shots and made birdie to force extra holes.

The first playoff hole was a short par 4, where Howe drove within 30 yards of the green. But his approach carried to the back fringe, leaving a challenging chip. Johnson was 10 feet left and below the hole and seemingly in control.

Howe might have benefitted from a higher source. His chip found the hole and a stunned Johnson missed. The match was over and Howe was headed to Augusta National.

“It was an unbelievable match,” said Johnson by phone recently. “Ralph was a real nice guy. There are always a lot of cocky guys and big egos … and he was definitely not like that. He was a gentleman.”

Howe, who still possesses the ball he used for the miraculous chip, was shocked walking back to the awards ceremony. He even asked USGA Rules official Tom Meeks for the validation that he earned a trip to Augusta. Meeks, now retired from the USGA, gave him the affirmation.

Once receiving the letter, Howe made monthly trips to the course, playing 28 times in preparation for the Masters, but never breaking 70. Part of it was due to being awed by the golf cathedral.

“You see the White House on TV and you go, ‘OK, it’s white and it’s a house,’ ” says Howe. “Augusta is the only place I have ever been to that I had seen on TV and when I got there I was more impressed. The hills were so big. The trees were so beautiful. It exceeded my expectations and they were high to begin with.”

Howe was so far in dreamland that on the first tee for Monday’s first official practice round with past champion Floyd and Andy Bean, he topped his tee shot into a row of spectators. The whole week was surreal.

Paired with 1987 champion Larry Mize – he also had a famous chip-in to win – in the first round, Howe hit 14 greens and shot 77. Mize hit seven greens and shot 72.

While Howe missed the cut, he managed the lowest 36-hole score among the five amateur invitees.

“I had eight three-putts and missed the cut by five,” says Howe, who brought his entire family, high school golf coach and friends to the event. “It was an incredible week. I stayed in the Crow’s Nest. I just had a hard time focusing.”

Later that summer, Howe completed his amateur career at the Walker Cup Match at Peachtree Golf Club in Atlanta, where that squad has the ignominious distinction being the first USA team to lose on American soil. Howe was paired in practice rounds with another lefty, Phil Mickelson, but played so poorly that the first southpaw Walker Cup foursome pairing never materialized.

“I was disappointed with my personal play,” says Howe. “The experience was phenomenal.”

Pro Transition

In a way, the Walker Cup might have foreshadowed Howe’s professional future. He never performed consistently good enough to be successful.

“Between sponsors and paychecks and credit cards,” says Howe, “I always had enough, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. It’s hard.”

One year in Asia, his bank account was teetering at zero and he managed to pocket $5,400 in Korea, which kept him solvent for another summer on the Hooters Tour. In another instance, he had $2,000 in the bank and $4,000 in bills after three consecutive missed cuts on the Hooters Tour. He survived by going the next four weeks with placing fourth, third, third and a win.

“I felt like I was a millionaire,” says Howe.

Being single justified the nomadic tour life. Howe never was the type to hang out in bars or clubs, so during down time, he read or played the guitar, a hobby that began after he turned pro. Bible studies also strengthened his faith.

Although retired from tour life, Howe desperately wants to qualify for a  U.S. Open. He files an entry every year. Four years ago, he reached sectional qualifying and was paired with six-time major champion Nick Faldo at Lake Nona in Orlando. Faldo qualified and Howe missed by eight shots.

The game remains rusty because he doesn’t play enough. Nevertheless, Howe won’t apply to regain his amateur status.

“I loved my amateur career – the Walker Cup, winning Metropolitan Player of the Year [in 1988],” says Howe. “Those are things that I will always cherish.  I just don’t want to go back and play amateur golf. That’s not going to be part of my amateur story.”

Moving Forward

Howe is now a father of four children – two biological and two adopted from China. It was his wife who always wanted to adopt after reading stories about Korean War orphans from soldiers who left after recent conflicts. Going through the proper Chinese agencies and dealing with the bureaucracy, the Howes adopted two girls – Abigail and Amanda, who are 3 and 5, respectively. They are as much a part of the family as Riley (7) and Jonah (4).

None have yet shown a keen interest in following dad’s footsteps on the golf course.

And that’s OK with Howe.

Howe stays connected to the game by getting in occasional rounds and teaching a class at the Professional Golfers Career College, which has one of its three campuses in Orlando. Each Wednesday, Howe lectures students on his other passion: golf.

His course curriculum deals with everything from the game’s origins, to the formation of the Rules, to the modern-day champions.

“It’s a thrill for me because it is young people for the most part who want to be involved in the industry,” says Howe. “The reason I do it is that I want to be outside of a church environment. I don’t want to be disconnected from the community.”

Then again, Howe is part of history. He always will be the first lefty to have won a USGA championship. His name is permanently etched on the James Standish Trophy and on a wall panel inside the Hall of Champions at the USGA Museum for the year 1988.

“I love it,” he says. “I’m thrilled. [Being the first lefty USGA champion] doesn’t mean anything, really. It’s cool that I get to have a little part in USGA history. Because I love golf and the fact that I’m a little side note in the story, that works for me.”

David Shefter is a USGA staff writer in the Communications Department.

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