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Earning $33M with just two wins proves there's many paths to PGA Tour success

We love winners, don’t we? Boy, do we love winners. We love to watch them win, and then we love to watch them fall because both represent the dramatic ends of the sports-consumption spectrum. Tiger Woods is the most obvious example of this, but it’s prevalent across all sports in all eras.

The problem in golf is that we overvalue winning. We disproportionately assign labels to golfers based on how little they do or don’t win based on how much we’ve seen athletes in other sports win. If LeBron James has a career .650 winning percentage, we presume the best golfer in the world should win at the same clip.

The reality is a little different. The best golfer in the world (currently Dustin Johnson) has played in 213 PGA Tour events and won 15 of them. He wins 7 percent of the time, and he is historically great. So you can see how improperly valuing trophy ceremonies at the end of weeks is easy to do.

What we undervalue is long, consistent stretches of goodness. For example, what is more impressive from the 2016-17 PGA Tour season: Paul Casey’s five top-5 finishes with no wins or Rod Pampling winning the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open but finishing in the top 25 in just one other tournament?

To me, and to most people inside golf, that seems pretty straightforward. And yet, it’s complicated. The reality is that Pampling won and Casey did not. That has to matter at least a little bit, right?

The reason I was reminded of all of this is because the poster boy for not winning but being consistently terrific and relevant contended at the Quicken Loans National last weekend. After a runner-up to Kyle Stanley on Sunday in a playoff, Charles Howell III bumped his career earnings to $ 33.3 million since turning pro in 2000. He has somehow just won twice.

This gets brought up a lot, and I’m sure Howell is sick of thinking and talking about it. He just wants to win. But it’s an important reminder that for many PGA Tour pros, the golf is not about stacking up a legacy but rather about making a (sometimes very good) living. It’s about having a great, fun job for a really long time.

Howell has made more money in his career than Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth, Rickie Fowler and Henrik Stenson despite only claiming the Michelob Championship at Kingsmill in 2002 and the Nissan Open in 2007.

One of my biggest wrestling points in this business is how you define success. I imagine it is something I will exit the profession not having truly figured out. But I do know that Howell has attained some form of it. He is one of only three golfers (Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk being the others) to finish in the top 125 on the money list every year since 2000. A remarkable streak that he and Mickelson will continue but Furyk might not this season.

Howell has made $ 1.2 million or more every single year since 2000. He essentially plays golf for a salary of well over $ 1 million. That’s pretty good. What’s even more remarkable is how much money he’s earned per win. I looked up the top 10 right now in this category, and there are some names you would probably expect to see. Howell stands head and shoulders above everyone else.

RankPlayerCareer moneyWinsMoney per win


Charles Howell III

$ 33,318,309


$ 16,659,155


Jerry Kelly

$ 28,853,748


$ 9,617,916


Luke Donald

$ 35,840,933


$ 7,168,187


Rickie Fowler

$ 27,935,996


$ 6,983,999


Robert Allenby

$ 27,433,066


$ 6,858,267


Chad Campbell

$ 25,385,840


$ 6,346,460


Stewart Cink

$ 35,124,831


$ 5,854,139


Matt Kuchar

$ 39,769,050


$ 5,681,293


Justin Rose

$ 39,504,289


$ 5,643,470


Scott Verplank

$ 27,500,225


$ 5,500,045

The big question is what this table actually represents. Are these uber-talented golfers who couldn’t get the job done, or are these golfers who caught a few bad breaks when they were in contention? Justin Rose is probably the outlier here. Rose has won a U.S. Open and a handful of other big boy tournaments. I would not put him (and maybe not Rickie Fowler either) in the same category as the rest of these golfers.

So you see the predicament. Howell has almost undoubtedly had the best career per win of anyone in golf history. 

I posed the question on our podcast last week, but who of us has been one of the 125 best in our given industry for 17 straight years like Howell? Is that better or worse than catching fire for one week and winning a single tournament or a major championship? I value that consistency, and I think other players respect it quite a bit.

Guys like Howell (and most of the guys on this list) are lifers, too. It matters to them that they are really good for long periods of time. This is their livelihood. Howell has been out with an injury since the middle of April, and he said after losing in the playoff to Stanley that he was going stir-crazy.

“Well, I realized real quick that our health is probably our most important asset, and I realized how much I enjoyed playing golf and playing golf out here,” said Howell. “All the guys out here, they’re my friends and it’s a life that we’ve known forever. Yeah, I really missed being out here. I watched a lot of golf on TV, watched a lot of Golf Channel as well, but I really missed it.”

I (still) don’t know how to define success, but I know that Howell (and a lot of other golfers on that list above) have seen a lot of it. He has 84 top 10s and 16 runner-ups in a nearly 500-event career on the PGA Tour. That’s a lot of great golf at an absurdly high level. 

Maybe Howell and others like Jerry Kelly and Luke Donald won’t go down as giants of the game and competitors who always got it done. That doesn’t mean we should devalue their careers because they only have a couple of trophies between them. There are innumerable ways to define success, and 17 years into his professional career, Howell continues to reminds us that in golf winning isn’t everything.

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