Gay and Howell had earlier been joined in the playoff by David Lingmerth but when the Swede made a mess of the first extra hole it was Gay and Howell who headed for the 17th where Gay's birdie got the job done.
3Ã‚Â½ years after his last PGA Tour victory at the 2009 St Jude Classic, Gay has made the perfect start to 2013 after a year in 2012 where he had battled. He still earned close to a million dollars last year but he had set about rebuilding his swing and was not playing to the level he had in earlier seasons.
Gay had begun the final round six shots behind the overnight leader, Scott Stallings, but a round of 63 saw him not only catch Stallings but pass him as Stalling's final round of 70 including a bogey at the final hole cost him his chance of a third PGA Tour victory.
Howell was chasing his first victory since the 2007 Nissan Open but he has started the 2013 season brilliantly with a 3rd place finish last year and now this share of second with Lingmerth.
James Hahn and Scott Stallings tied for 4th on a day where the average score for the leading nine players was an impressive 8 under par 64.
The leading Australian was Matt Jones who finished 23rd while Geoff Ogilvy and Aaron Baddeley.
The PGA Tour now moves south to Torrey Pines near San Diego for the Farmers Insurance Open where the field is headed by the World number two, Tiger Woods.