SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.– When Spencer Levin finished his second round early Friday afternoon, he led by a touchdown. That's fairly unusual on the PGA Tour. You just don't see players getting that far ahead-seven strokes-that early.
It didn't last long. Minutes later, John Huh birdied his last hole to cut Levin's lead to six. After play was suspended due to darkness, Harrison Frazar was three strokes back, but he still has three holes to finish in the second round.
Still, this is exactly the kind of spontaneous brilliance that we've been waiting to see from Levin ever since he came back onto the course after a rain delay and made a hole-in-one on national television during the first round of the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. It was just the third Open ace by an amateur and it was the first of Levin's life.
Timely? Absolutely. His approach shot at Shinnecock's 17th green took two bounces and dropped into the cup, then the 20-year-old Levin, wearing his shirt-collar turned up, sauntered to the green like he owned the place.
It was a shot, he said then, that he'd "definitely remember for the rest of my life." Others remember it, too. Levin finished tied for 13th in that Open, a finish that built up great expectations.
Nearly eight years later, those expectations remains slightly unfulfilled but Levin, now 27, has made steady progress. He played his way up through the Canadian Tour to the Nationwide Tour and finally, in 2009, to the PGA Tour. Last year, he had a chance to win the PGA Tour event in Mexico when he closed with a 65, but he bogeyed the first playoff hole to lose to Johnson Wagner.
Still, it's progress, the kind of slow, normal progression that most players experience trying to carve out careers as pros. The overnight sensations, like Gary Woodland or Rickie Fowler, are far outnumbered by the players who need several years to get their games to where they want. There are 10 times as many examples of slow-and-steady successes like Bill Haas, Bryce Molder, Steve Stricker and others.
Levin has always been a throwback. The sight of him smoking during that '04 Open, the cigarette often dangling carelessly off his lip, evoked images of the young Arnold Palmer.
Now he's playing like he belongs on the tour and he knows it. He put up a 62 to start last week's Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines before he finished tied for 43rd. This week, Levin bolted out to a quick start at TPC Scottsdale with a 65, then followed it up with Friday's 63.
The highlight was when his drive rolled off the edge of the par-4 17th green, and he holed the ensuing bunker shot for eagle. He squeezed in six other birdies, too.
Where Levin is now is a testament to golf's fickle nature. He felt lousy warming up before Thursday's round, hitting it poorly on the range and complaining about it. The fact that his dad was watching and kept telling him how great he was swinging didn't help. The shots weren't going where Levin wanted them to. That's disturbing to a finely tuned tour player. When he bogeyed the opening hole, he bitched to his caddie, "This might be a nine-hole week here."
After four straight pars, he made three birdies in a row, then added three more on the front side before darkness halted play when he putted out at the sixth green. He returned Friday morning, started at the seventh with another birdie, then birdied the first two holes of his second round and was off to the races.
"That shows you what I know," Levin joked. "That shows you how crazy this game is, I guess. I started playing good, simple as that. I really don't know why."
Last year, he achieved consistency, making 25 of 31 cuts and posting six top-10 finishes. The year before, he only recorded three top-10s. In 2009, his rookie season, he made only 13 of 25 cuts.
"I feel like I'm getting better overall as a player," he said. "That's everybody's goal and that's what I'm trying to do. The last couple of years, I've made a lot of cuts but haven't gone super-low a lot. These last two weeks, it's nice to have a low one once in a while. I wish I could explain it. I've been putting really well."
His father, Don, was a star at San Jose State and played pro golf for 12 years, including three seasons on the PGA Tour in the early 1980s. In fact, Don was on his son's bag at Shinnecock for the ace.
Staying patient hasn't been that easy. Levin has been known in past years for his occasional displays of temper -flipping clubs and barking expletives. He's always been intense, but Levin appears to be mellowing.
One big change is his improved putting. That happened when he discovered the belly putter, courtesy of Webb Simpson.
"I pretty much tried it because I played with Webb my rookie year-we were both rookies the same year-and every time I played with him, he putted great," Levin said. "I thought, man, I've got to try that. Every time I played with a guy who used a belly putter, they'd putt good, so I figured I might as well give it a shot, and I like it."
Look for the ringleaders who lead the cheers at the infamous par-3 16th hole to give him a more interesting greeting this weekend. Friday, he said, they simply chanted his name but didn't say it right-"Le-ven! Le-ven! Le-ven!" Instead of "La-VEEN, La-VEEN, La-VEEN!" Asked if they were actually chanting, "Eleven! Eleven!" because that's how many under par he was at the time, Levine laughed and said he didn't know.
"It was pretty cool to have them on your side, they seem to know a lot," he said. "You can tell they've done their homework."
His progression includes a better understanding of what it takes to win on this tour. That playoff loss last year didn't change his mindset.
"I don't really know if I learned anything from that, but I have learned that you can't get stagnant on the lead," he said. "Somebody is always going to shoot low every day. If you're playing well, chances are someone else is, too. I've learned that at each level as a pro, from mini-tour to Canadian to Nationwide to here, the level gets a little higher. The value of one shot is always a little bit higher. I'm just trying to keep making birdies.
"Everybody says that, but you really have to do that out here," he said. "So I'm just going to try to stay as aggressive as I can the next two days."
"Play Hard" is the player's version of the Phoenix Open's usual mantra, "Party Hard." It's all about the weekend.