PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — You may remember the ace. Not many amateurs make a hole-in-one in their first United States Open. You may remember the swagger. Not many amateurs finish 13th in their first Open and act like they expected to.
Or maybe you remember the smoke. Spencer Levin seemed like a throwback to an era gone by when he burst onto the scene at Shinnecock Hills during the ’04 Open. On top of acting like he owned the place instead of an awed 20-year-old, he wasn’t shy about smoking cigarettes on the course, a look most tour players who smoke try to avoid.
Six years later, Levin has finally arrived. He got into his first Players field earlier this week when Steve Stricker withdrew due to a sore clavicle. Levin, who grew up in Sacramento and was a first-team All-American at New Mexico, is 25 now and in his second season on the PGA Tour. He didn’t earn exempt status in his rookie year, but he did win more than $531,000. This year he’s starting to live up to his star billing. He has played consistent golf, made nine of 11 cuts and currently ranks 109th on the money list with more than $335,000 in the bank — a good start.
I’ve kept an eye on his career ever since Shinnecock, especially after the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, when I wrote a piece about him and Ryan Moore. The story was bumped from SI’s Open coverage, but here’s an excerpt of what I wrote then:
Levin had his own symbolic moments at the Open, his first tournament as a professional. Monday, Levin scored nine holes in a practice round with Tiger Woods and was stoked that Woods called him “Spence.” Tuesday, he held a press conference and announced he was passing up his senior year at the University of New Mexico to turn pro for the Open. Wednesday, he celebrated his 21st birthday with family and friends at the Holly Inn. His mother, Carlene Metzler, bought him an iPod loaded with a thousand songs; his eight-year-old brother gave him 21 $1 bills he’d earned doing chores; and, naturally, Levin enjoyed a token drink — his first legal beer.
“I got a little birthday cake, a little singing,” Levin said. “I couldn’t really make my 21st birthday the way a lot of people do — I had to play golf the next day. But it was pretty cool.”
Thursday, his gallery included MacGregor executive Barry Schneider, who signed Levin to a long-term deal to play MacGregor clubs. Levin also bummed a light from fellow smoker John Daly before the round. “Yeah, he lit my cigarette with a John Daly lighter,” Levin said. “I told him, man, I gotta get me one of those.”
I went on to write about the connections between Levin and Moore. They are both West Coast guys. (Moore is from Puyallup, Wash.) They often faced each other in amateur golf and in college — Moore at UNLV, Levin at UCLA first and then New Mexico after he transferred. They’re feel players, the antithesis of the modern robo-swingers.
Flash forward to 2010. Moore has had more success at the PGA Tour level so far, but Levin has been climbing the ladder. A year (and two victories) on the Canadian tour. A year on the Nationwide tour. “I’ve been progressing every year, getting better every year,” Levin said Wednesday morning during a press conference where media types could grill first-time Players contestants scattered throughout the room. “Nobody really notices, but I’m happy to be here, man.”
It’s been a slow and steady rise. It was a long year in Canada, a lot of travel. That is one big country. “Yeah, I think I’ve seen more Blue Jays games than Giants games the last few years,” Levin joked. “I made a little money along the way. Five years to get here isn’t bad. Some guys take 15 years, a lot of guys never get here at all.”
A couple of key stats indicate Levin is probably on the PGA Tour to stay. He ranks 14th in greens hit in regulation, the sign of a good ballstriker. He is 17th in par-3 scoring average, which indicates his iron play is solid. Broken down by distance, he’s first in greens hit in regulation from 150-175 yards and sixth from 225-250 yards. He’s had four top-25 finishes this year. The stats where he needs to improve? He’s 164th in average distance of putts made and 187th in total putting, which combines several putting categories. It’s a fact on tour that you’ve got to putt well to be a great player.
Not much has changed in his life otherwise, Levin said. He bought a place to live in Scottsdale, Ariz., “but I’m not there much.” As of Wednesday morning, he had played only the front nine of the Sawgrass course. He knows the back nine only from watching TV and playing video games. “It’s pretty easy on the video games, which I’ve played a million times,” he said. “Yeah, I dominated it. Made about 15 eagles. In person, it’s a little different. You’ve got to actually hit the shots instead of just pushing a button.”
He was curious about the island-green 17th hole. “It’s like a 9-iron-shot, I heard?” he asked. Or maybe even a wedge with no wind, I told him, and it actually is a pretty big green. “Really? So you’ve just got to hit a good shot is the bottom line, then,” he concluded.
As one of the last players to get into the field, Levin has the coveted last tee time — at 2:31 p.m. off the 10th tee with Brendon de Jonge and Kris Blanks. It’s a familiar spot for Levin, who’s in that Q-school category that brings up the rear of the field almost every week he plays.
“Yeah, I’m last off. I get the late times all year,” he said. “I’ll tell you what — at least I’ve got a tee time. That’s good, man.”