KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Even-keeled. At least that was Don Levin’s assessment of his son.
“That what he said?” Spencer Levin said.
Spencer shot a sly grin, pointed to his caddie and said, “Ask Hicksy. He could tell you.”
Mike Hicks is remembered for being on the bag when Payne Stewart captured an unforgettable 1999 U.S. Open, but he goes back even further in this PGA Tour business – to the early 1980s, in fact, when one of his jobs was working for an unheralded pro from northern California, Don Levin.
“Absolutely,” Hicks said, when asked if it’s true that he can lay claim to having worked for the Levins, father and son. And, yes, he can confirm Don’s claim that Spencer is even-keeled, far more so than the dad.
“(Don) was hot, oh, yeah. Spencer’s on the opposite end of the spectrum,” Hicks said.
Oh, but how father and son are so on the same page when it comes to managing their current state of affairs on the PGA Tour. Spencer Levin is 28, in his fourth year on Tour, playing in just his seventh major, and if you prefer your pros to be their own selves and not out of the cookie-cutter mold, then he’s someone for whom you’d want to root. Small in stature, but big in heart, Levin squeezes every drop out of his game and has moved forward in his career at every turn.
“He’s a very, very good player. We’re just trying to turn things around,” said Don Levin, who played on the PGA Tour in the early 1980s but is now a golf professional at Wildhawk Golf Club in Sacramento, Calif.
He’s here at the 94th PGA Championship as a father and his son’s biggest supporter, but also as the man who has honed Spencer Levin’s swing for more than 20 years. Asked how they get along as father and son as opposed to teacher and student, Don laughed, shrugged, and said, “it can be hot and cold; when everything’s going smooth, it works good.”
Told what his father’s assessment was, Spencer laughed, too. But he said it was all good. “We have a real good relationship, but he’s a real good teacher, too,” Spencer said.
“He knows a lot about the swing, and it’s easy to listen to him because he played for living. He knows what it feels like. He knows the things to work on that you’re able to bring to the course for competition.”
Tuesday’s series of thunderstorms cut Levin’s on-course preparation to just 10 holes, which was OK because there was work to be done on the range. Now, interested observers standing nearby might have thought Spencer Levin was going to employ an iron that he could anchor to his body, what with a second shaft extended out of the top of his grip. But it was as the son/student had said: It was something to work on to bring onto the course.
In this case, Don Levin wanted his son to work a drill that would reinforce the feeling of not releasing the club too early. “When pros get in trouble, they get the toe of the club releasing past the heel,” Don said. “It’s what a hacker needs to do and what these guys don’t want to do.”
To emphasize that feeling, Don Levin asked the TaylorMade equipment guys to provide that training club, one that had a second shaft extended out, so when Spencer swings it, he could only do so by keeping the left arm tucked close to his body “and he could get the feeling through impact of not turning the clubface over,” the father/teacher said.
As Spencer swung the training aid and Don watched, into the picture strolled one of the game’s true legendary gentlemen, Eddie Merrins. Affectionately called “The Lil’ Pro,” Merrins for years was the head professional at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles and later coached UCLA. It’s Merrins’ connection to UCLA that brought him in contact with Levin, who was a Bruin for one season before transferring to New Mexico.
“Eddie will stop and watch Spencer in San Diego, Los Angeles and at the majors,” Don Levin said. Warm handshakes were exchanged, and after one particular swing, Merrins stopped Spencer and demonstrated something he saw in the move that could be improved.
Sopped in sweat on a day of insufferable humidity, Spencer paid close attention, nodded, and then swung.
Merrins nodded his head, patted him, and moved on. A few swings later, Don Levin said, “That was better, a much better swing.”
Small progress at a time when the Levins think it is needed.
“He’s very steady, but he hasn’t played very well this year at all,” Don Levin said. “The swing isn’t where it has been the last five, six years. So we’ve gone back to old drills, reinforcing ball-striking, which is his forte.”
Putting the long-shafted training club away, Spencer Levin started hitting a series of shots with what the father calls “the walk-through drill.”
Here, Spencer Levin took his normal swing, made contact, then went through the motion as if to walk toward where had just hit the ball. It promotes balance, keeping level, and both father and son talked of “a good transition, a good exit.”
If that drill looked awkward to those watching from outside the ropes, it didn’t to former U.S. Open champ Geoff Ogilvy. When he walked by and saw Levin’s “walk through” motion, the Aussie smiled and said something to the effect that someone won multiple majors with that type of move.
Don Levin liked that, knowing Ogilvy was referring to Gary Player.
“(Spencer) knows what he needs to feel,” Don Levin said.
This year, the feeling hasn’t quite been there. Agonizingly close to breaking through for his first PGA Tour win in February at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Spencer squandered a six-stroke lead through 54 holes and finished third.
“It was tough,” Don Levin said. “I paced, just walked around. It was kind of crappy. I remember at one point saying, ‘God, is this really going to happen?’ I felt so bad for him.”
His spirits crushed, Spencer showed plenty of grit and finished T-9 the very next week, at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Throw in a T-4 at the Memorial and the trio of top-10 finishes have provided the bulk of Levin’s $1.3 million in earnings. On paper, it looks good, but Spencer Levin has no trouble with the truth.
He is disappointed in the way his season has gone, especially of late. He has missed four cuts and finished no better than T-36 in his past seven tournaments.
“The weeks I’ve driven it well, I’ve done well,” he said. “Once I get my driver in the fairway, I’ll be OK.”
From $531,240 in 2009, Levin has piled up $1.2 million and $2.3 million, respectively, in the past two campaigns. His three top 10s in 2010 were doubled a year ago. The steady progression has been there, and much of that is owed to the consistency between father and son, teacher and student.
Theirs is a relationship stronger than ever.