McCabe: Levin fights 'just miss' label on Tour

Spencer Levin waits under an umbrella on the seventh hole during the second round of the Memorial Tournament.

Spencer Levin waits under an umbrella on the seventh hole during the second round of the Memorial Tournament.

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DUBLIN, Ohio – There are those who suffer miserably from wearing the “can’t miss” tag. Then there are those, such as Spencer Levin, who grow from being challenged with the “just miss” reality.

Consider where he was a few weeks ago, or a few months ago, or even last fall, then study his career, his size, and his demeanor and you get a pretty good sense of the fire that burns deep within. Diminutive, yes. But that doesn’t minimize the demands he puts upon himself.

Does he have trouble letting go of the mishaps, which invariably come to every golfer at this level?

Levin smiled slightly. “I think so,” he said. “But I expect to be good.”

You would be wise to offer your resignation and hand in your PGA Tour card if you thought differently, so it’s a clear indication that Levin believes he belongs out here with the greatest players, no matter that he stands 5 feet, 10 inches and weighs 155 pounds. True, he doesn’t possess the most impressive resume at any tournament he enters, but Levin has something even better: a serious measure of passion, pride and fortitude.

Assess Levin’s young career any which way you prefer, but here’s one proper indicator: Four years after turning professional, the one-time California State Amateur champion made it onto the PGA Tour, and all he has done since is move forward. From 143rd in the FedEx Cup standings in 2009, he improved to 81st to 47th. From one top-10 in 2009, he improved to three a year later to six in 2011. From 141st on the money list in 2009, he improved to 74th then 31st a year ago . . .

Which is where we can stop the slide show and pause for further examination. Now being 31st on the money list might not resonate with 99.9 percent of the world’s population, but in Levin’s little corner of the universe, it’s massive.

Why?

The top 30 on the money list earn invitations to the Masters, the only major championship in which Levin has not played.

On further examination, you’ll find that Levin finished a mere $16,927 behind No. 30, Kevin Na, on the 2011 money list, such a slim figure in the world of million-dollar paydays that you can totally understand the hushed tones with which he spoke at the conclusion of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic at Disney World, the final tournament of 2011.

Keep that bitter disappointment in mind when you then revisit the Waste Management Phoenix Open this past February, at which Levin built a six-stroke lead through 54 holes – only to lose. It not only figured to be his first PGA Tour win but also his ticket to the Masters, at least until a sloppy and nervous-looking final-round 75 featured a double bogey at the par-5 15th and dropped him into third.

Does he think about that final round?

“I go sometimes 15, 20 minutes without thinking about it,” he said with a dead-pan delivery Thursday, one that was made easier because Levin had just opened with a rock-solid 5-under 67 to sit just one off of Scott Stallings’ lead at the Memorial Tournament. Clearly, Levin was happy, but just as sure is this: He doesn’t intend to toss the disappointments completely out of his mind.

That’s just not how this small, but fiery competitor is wired, and it’s why he not only smarts from the failure at TPC Scottsdale, but also the heartache from a few weeks ago at The Players Championship. Having ripped off six birdies from the ninth through 16th holes, the 27-year-old pushed to 7 under and figured to finish in a share of 10th place. But he pulled his drive at 18 just enough to find the water and with a closing double bogey, Levin fell to T-15.

Against a backdrop of marquee names to whom such a fate wouldn’t occupy even a millisecond of their thought process, Levin was crushed. He remembers what $16,927 meant a year ago, so he certainly appreciated what that errant drive had meant.

“I was playing great, and it’s easy there (to get deflated), because it was double my paycheck and all that,” Levin said. “It was a tough one.”

OK, so he didn’t quite lose out on the chance to “double” his paycheck, but had he made par at the 18th, Levin would have earned approximately $237,600, not the $137,987 he got for being T-15, so you could argue that bad drive cost him $100,000.

Imagine the sort of luxury that could buy Levin at the end of the 2012 money list. Then again, don’t bother, because he swears he’s working heard to let go of the heartaches and fill his head only with positive thoughts.

The 67 recorded Thursday over a firm and fast Muirfield Village Golf Club lifted Levin’s spirits, especially since it came on the heels of a late-afternoon session Wednesday at the range. Validation for hard work and perseverance is always appreciated, even more when you’re a grinder like Levin.

That he maneuvered in and out of rainstorms Friday morning to go out in 35, push to 6 under, and move into the lead was further evidence that Levin is increasingly creeping toward the threshold of that elusive first PGA Tour win. But whether he holds on or not, the kid from Elk Grove, Calif., will maintain focus, knowing he’s got much to play for.

For instance, the Monday doubleheader not far from Muirfield Village, 36 holes of a U.S. Open sectional qualifier at famed Scioto and the Scarlet Course at Ohio State University. Seeing as how the national championship will be held at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, which is Levin’s home area, he does not hide his emotions.

“This (U.S. Open) I want to get into more than any other one I’ve tried for,” said Levin. “Just because it’s close to home and in my mind, it might be the best golf course in the world.”

Now Levin – who played in the U.S. Open in 2004 as an amateur, finished T-13 to be exempted into the 2005 tournament but hasn’t made it since – concedes his favorable view of The Olympic Club may be biased, given that he lived in San Francisco for years. “I’ve played it about 10 times, though never in a tournament, and it’s great and I’d have a lot of friends and family there. I’ve had this one on the schedule for a while.”

Levin in the past has left after the Memorial Tournament to fly through the night and be in northern California for the sectional qualifier, but this year he’s staying local.

Of course, should Levin win the Memorial, he’d most likely move from 77th in the Official World Golf Ranking to inside the top 50 and earn an exemption into the U.S. Open and thus have no need for the qualifier.

Whoa. Going a bit fast there? Perhaps. But, hey, he’s got to shake the “just miss” label sometime, no?

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