A third win for Howell would be oh-so-sweet on Sunday

— -- GAINESVILLE, Va. -- It's widely known that Charles Howell III is one of Tiger Woods' oldest buddies still kicking around the PGA Tour circuit. Separated by three years, Howell gravitated toward Woods as a mentor when he first turned professional. He could lean on him, a fellow phenom who understood the pressures of lofty expectations.

This part isn't as widely known: Back in the early stages of his career, when Howell was searching for a permanent home base, he migrated to the posh community of Isleworth in Orlando, Florida, largely because Woods also lived there at the time. He wanted to learn from the player he considered the best in the game.

"He helped me tremendously," Howell recalled. "It's just the time we spent around each other. I owe him tremendously. I want to see him back playing good golf again. He's fit again and he's still young, 39, and lot of great players have won majors into their 40s. Man, [I'd love] to see him do that, as well."

Saturday's third round of the Quicken Loans National served as a reunion between the two friends. Paired in the 1:20 p.m. ET tee time, each player entering the weekend in contention for a title, this time it was Woods who was impressed by Howell, as the latter posted a 4-under 67 that was 7 strokes lower than his playing partner.

It was a far cry from those old Isleworth days, when Woods was using their friendly matches as tune-ups between competitive domination.

This time it was Howell who was deftly dropping long drives into the middle of fairways and hitting approach shots close to the hole and draining birdie putts -- five of them, in fact, along with a kick-in eagle. His victory against Woods in the 2013 WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship notwithstanding, Howell can't recall many other times he bested his buddy.

"I've been on the receiving end of a lot of lost bets," Howell said with a laugh. "Haven't played that much as a pro because of my poor golf, not his. At home, we played together a lot at Isleworth. I haven't beat him like this a lot. Days like today are rare."

There might be no player on the PGA Tour who has endured more heartache and heartbreak inside the ropes than Howell.

Since 2001, he has never failed to earn seven figures in a season -- including the current one -- but his record is stained by a mind-boggling 14 runner-up finishes against just two wins, the last of which came eight years ago. During Saturday's television broadcast, a graphic flashed on the screen with the following information: Howell owns 17 top-five finishes without a win since 2008, which is four more than any other player.

All of which helps make a few points about him: He has been snake bitten when in contention, but he obviously owns a tremendous amount of talent to come so close, so often.

Perhaps that will change on Sunday, when Howell will enter the final round just 2 strokes behind co-leaders Troy Merritt and Kevin Chappell.

It all serves as a stark contrast to years gone by.

Howell estimates that perhaps no other player -- maybe Phil Mickelson, he suggests -- has been asked as many questions about Woods over the years as him. On the short list of the PGA Tour's nicest guys, he has always answered these questions with intelligence, insight and a keen understanding of what his buddy endures on a daily basis.

On this day, though, rather than Howell being asked about his famous friend, it was Woods being asked post-round questions about Howell, a smile appearing across his face as he broke down Howell's game and wished for positive things for him.

"He's really hitting the golf ball well," Woods said. "It finally looks like he's found a routine with his putting stroke that gets comfortable and gets up and goes. His stroke looks great. He's done a lot of good work. Hope he plays well tomorrow."

As they walked the fairways of Robert Trent Jones Golf Club together on Saturday, the pair allowed themselves to engage in a few nostalgic discussions about the good ol' days.

They laughed about gray hair and receding hairlines. They joked about the days before they had kids.

"There were some conversations that this was his 20th year out here and my 15th," Howell recalled. He then paused and wistfully said of the time, "It flies by."

Back in those days, he didn't beat Woods too often. Time has a way of evening things out, though -- even just a little.

On Sunday, with the tournament host well out of contention, he'll be rooting for his buddy -- the one who once moved nearby just to learn from him, the one who has so often answered questions about him and the one who, on this day, finally got the better of their matchup.