Spencer Levin doesn’t need to hear any lectures on the health risks when it comes to smoking cigarettes — Marlboro Reds, to be precise — and he’s well aware it strays from the squeaky-clean image of the PGA Tour brand. He’s not just a one or two smoke a round kind of guy, either. A pack would be more a closer estimate.
Judge him if you’d like (and I hate to break it to you, but a fair share of players use chewing tobacco — probably roughly 1/4 to 1/3), but as he reminded the media after shooting a three-under 69, matching Rickie Fowler and Vijay Singh for low round on Saturday: It’s legal and there are worse things he could be doing.
Besides, he has more important stuff on his mind. You know, like winning a golf tournament. Heading into Sunday, Levin is eight-under through 54 holes and holds a one-shot lead over Rory Sabbatini and a few bigger names lurking right behind him. Rickie Fowler is five-under and Tiger Woods is four-under.
“I had some really good breaks, so I’ll take it,” said Spence, as most people call him. “I played pretty solid, but it’s nice to have a couple good breaks. But if you’re going to shoot the low round of the day out here on the Tour, or any day, you’re going to have a couple good breaks or make long putts or chip in generally.”
Everyone knows a one-shot lead can disappear faster than a blink. In fact, Spencer knows that can even happen when you have a six-shot advantage heading into the final round. Unfortunately, he had to learn the hard way. Earlier this year at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Spencer didn’t exactly have the best day, and well, gave it away (which he said himself in his press conference afterward — have never heard someone handle that situation as well as he did and speak so candidly). He held on before a rough back nine led to a final-round 75.
“People have been asking me that question, and I don’t know yet,” said Spence. “I’ll be able to answer that tomorrow when I get done.”
I’m under the impression he’s tired of being reminded of that day repeatedly this week. Well, Levin has a shot at redemption on Sunday, but he also has a long list of marquee players on his heels.
He added: “I did learn that I still got to play golf, I still got to eat the same stuff, still have the same friends, still have the same family, so nothing really changed. Obviously you want to win when you’re in position, but I’m just going to go out there tomorrow and have fun. Nothing really changed in my life, and I don’t think anything will change that big in my life if I do win. It’s just going out there and try and do my best.”
It’s easy to cheer for Spence, an underdog and guy who stands out from the pack of generic robots. He’s almost like a throwback. His swing is unconventional. He chain smokes. He doesn’t mince words. He’s emotional and fiery in the heat of battle. Otherwise, he’s laid-back and pretty chill (like during practice rounds). He’s fidgety and his dynamic body language after each shot shows his character.
One thing is different this week that might work to his advantage — his regular caddie Mike Hicks, who looped for the late Payne Stewart, is attending his son’s high school graduation. His sub is Jon Turcott, a good “buddy” from Levin’s days on the Nationwide Tour.
“It’s nice to have him out here,” said Spencer. “I played well with him last year in Canada with him on the bag, and he’s a friend of mine. He’s a good player, too. He qualified for the sectionals. He’s playing Monday for the U.S. Open, and he’s a good player, and we seem to get along pretty good, and I enjoy his company.”
Just to have a good friend — not to say his caddie isn’t his pal because he is but there’s a bigger age gap and sometimes a change, even if it’s for a week, doesn’t hurt — with him on Sunday should help ease the pressure and Jon, who knows what it’s like to be in contention, will do his best to manage the nerves coming down the stretch. Jon knows Spencer so well that he predicted on Wednesday that Spence would go low on Thursday. He also said he had a feeling it’d be a good week.
So far, so good.
I have a bunch of tidbits, but it’s Saturday night and it’s late, so I’ll update this post in the morning. One thing’s for sure: Sunday’s final round won’t lack drama.
Beofre I go, I’ll share some insightful comments from Scott Stallings on his first experience playing with Tiger.
Excerpts from the media scrum with Scott Stallings:
*On Tiger’s ridiculously sick shot from the fairway bunker that he stuck close on No. 17: “That shot on 17 you don’t see every day. I mean, he hit a wedge over a 20-story building out of a fairway bunker to ten feet. It was kind of one of those deals where you respect good golf. He definitely hit some good shots out there. To be honest, I thought he was going to lay up and then the next thing I know, I saw it come out and go right beside the flag, and I said, that’s why he’s one of the best players ever to have played the game.“
*On playing with Tiger for the first time and giving him a hard time: “I was just going to respect Tiger and I wasn’t going to try and ask him a bunch of questions or bother him, but he started to ask me some questions and talk to me a bit, so as the round went on, I was kind of giving him a hard time because man, if you were around him, he just feels terrible. He started hawking and hacking and coughing up all this stuff, so — I can’t remember which hole, but I looked at him and said, ‘Man, are you going to make it? Are we going to need to get you a cart?’ From then on, we started giving each other a hard time and it was a lot of fun.”
*On how much fun it looked like he was having and his friendly demeanor on the course: “If you can’t have fun out here, you’re doing the wrong thing, and if you can’t get excited about playing in one of the final groups on Saturday at Jack’s place with Tiger Woods, how could you not be excited? Whether you play good or bad, I remember watching Tiger when I was 12 or 13 and thinking, man that would be so awesome to play with him, let alone we’re in the second to last group playing together.”
*On what he learned from playing with Tiger: “You gotta learn to have lower expectations for the crowds. Obviously he deals with that way more than I do, but it’s just amazing what people yell at him. You’d think that after doing the things he’s done on the golf course, there would be some level of respect, but I kind of found myself taking up defense for him out there, just kind of telling people to chill out a little bit. But for my own game, I gotta do a little better job as far as not paying attention to what’s going on outside the ropes.”
*On the kinds of things fans yelled at Tiger: “They said a lot of things that probably don’t need to be repeated. Just one of those things, he’s figured out a way to tune it out, but I’d never been in that situation before so it was a little bit shocking to me. I remember on No. 16, there was this one guy — and his caddie Joe (LaCava) kind of looked at him, and I looked at Joe and was like, really? Really? Just super negative. It is what it is. Stuff like, ‘You’re better than that!’ All kinds of stuff and that doesn’t need to happen.
“99.9% of the crowds are unbelievably courteous and really know what they’re doing, but that 0.1% tries to ruin it for everyone. For the most part, everyone was great. There were a couple of times where we looked at each other and it was like, did that really just happen? For most part, it was awesome and it was a great learning experience and it was really cool to be out there with him and kind of pick his brain through the course of the day. He could not have been a nicer guy, especially being on the golf course.”
*On dealing with the hustle and bustle of crowds stampeding to the next hole when Tiger putts out first: “I backed off a couple of times, especially around the greens. It’s awesome if you play before him, but if he’s done, it’s almost like more encouragement to hit it closer and just try to finish before he’s done. He did a good job of trying to police the crowd a little bit. He just tried to say, Hey man, c’mon there’s two of us out here. His caddie Joe was great, too. At end of day, with that many people, it’s hard to control.”
I thought his comment about feeling motivated to knock it inside of Tiger was a good way to look at it. OK, will share more later, like Stallings asking Tiger about how “The Stinger” was invented.
(AP Photo/Jay LaPrete; Getty Images/Scott Halleran)