In pursuit of his first PGA Tour title in six years, Howell narrowly missed a five-foot birdie putt at the last for outright victory in regulation play, then bogeyed the second extra hole to effectively hand Gay the win.
"I'm really disappointed," Augusta-born Howell told reporters after his bogey at the par-four 10th was trumped by Gay's five-foot birdie putt. "I wanted to get back into the Masters. Quite honestly. That thought crossed my mind.
"It's so darn hard to win out here and when you do have a chance to do it, it's painful to let it slip by. But once we got to the playoff, I kind of thought of it as a sort of three-man race for a spot in the Masters. But not to be."
Winners of PGA Tour events automatically earn spots at Augusta National for the Masters, the opening major of the year, and Howell fell short after he and Swede David Lingmerth were pipped by Gay in a sudden-death playoff.
Howell was, however, greatly encouraged by his closing round of eight-under-par 64 on another near-perfect day for scoring in the California desert.
"I had a good day today," said the 33-year-old, who won the most recent of his two PGA Tour titles at the 2007 Nissan Open. "The hole locations here on Sunday generally are a little bit more difficult than what we see in the pro-am days, so I played well enough today.
"Quite honestly, going into the day, I didn't really think that anybody had a chance, apart from Scott," Howell added, referring to compatriot Stallings who led by five strokes heading into the final round.
"He's won before, he hits it long enough to take advantage of the par-fives. At 22-under (overnight), I figured if he shoots six, seven under, he's really not catchable."
Howell was especially frustrated by his three-putt from long-range on the last hole of regulation.
"I really would like that one back, that three-putt there," he said. "But it happens and once you get a playoff, anything can happen. So here we are."
Overall, though, Howell can draw great comfort from a strong start to the 2013 PGA Tour season, a tie for third at last week's Sony Open in Hawaii followed by a runner-up spot at the Humana Challenge.
"I'm thrilled with the start of the season," he smiled. "I would have taken that for a Christmas present wrapped up nicely and had it. I hope it does continue on. I like the work that I'm doing. I've made more of a commitment to work on my short game.
"It's up to me to stick to the plan that I've laid out throughout the whole year. I still need to find a way to do a little better job coming down the stretch and do a little better job closing golf tournaments." (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Patrick Johnston)
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