For Spencer Levin, father knows best
Last Sunday, Don Levin was in the gallery at TPC Scottsdale as his 27-year-old son, Spencer, blew a 6-shot lead in the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open. But he didn't watch much of the golf. And it wasn't because he couldn't bear to watch his only child squander an opportunity to get his first PGA Tour win. He almost never watches, because as his son's swing instructor and closest adviser, it all means too much to him. Spencer's dream is his father's dream. So Don paced and fiddled with his cell phone -- anything to not obsess over his son's every move.
"I watch him hit about 25 percent of the shots," said the 54-year-old former San Jose State golfer. "I think it's more difficult for me than probably the typical parent of player because I'm watching so closely the mechanics of what he's doing in his golf swing.
"I can't just accept that I have no control over his shots, because I feel like a lot of what he does, it's in my hands, too. I've got to learn how to do a better job of that."
Don is certainly not laid back like Phil Mickelson's father, Phil Sr., who once told me that he learned a long time ago not to stress over his son's play because he couldn't do anything to help him on the golf course. Phil Sr. told me he just wanted his son to know that he was there for support.
But then Don's also not like Sean O'Hair's dad, Marc, who when he ran his son's career was at times a menacing taskmaster.
Don, who raised Spencer in the Sacramento, Calif., area, had a plan for his son. Spencer had been a good baseball player until he was about 15, when he started to take golf more seriously after winning the California State High School Championship as a sophomore. Before that he only played a couple of days a week.
Don had never wanted him to play golf because of what he had gone through as player. He had been a top player in California in the mid-to-late 1970s. He had come of age in that golf-rich state with Mark O'Meara, Scott Simpson, Craig Stadler and Bobby Clampett. After a solid college career at San Jose State, where he was a two-time All American, Don played three years on the PGA Tour in the early '80s. When Spencer was about 10, he only played golf four or five times a year and that was in tournaments. He never was the kid who rode his bike to the golf course and played from sunup to sundown for the fun of it.
"I wanted Spencer to associate golf with competition," Don said. "So if he ever got older and wanted to play he wouldn't look at golf as recreation and fun."
Don was a single parent on and off after splitting with Spencer's mother when Spencer was very young. Baseball, then golf was the glue that bonded father and son through the good and the bad times. As Spencer entered adolescence, he would have battles with his dad over what was right and wrong about the golf swing and his future in the game, but in the end he would follow Don's direction.
"Our relationship has always been about his trust in me, which has allowed him to progress," Don said. "But we still go through things once in a while."
After Spencer's 4-over 75 last Sunday in Phoenix, Donald told his son that he was extremely proud of him for grinding all the way through to the end.
"That's our whole deal. You go out and try hard on every shot," Don said. "Spencer will never, ever give up. That's why he makes a lot of cuts out here. He will never take a week off, a round off. He never cashes it in."
This week Spencer and Don will continue the grind at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where Spencer finished in a tie for fourth in 2011. It was at the 2003 California State Amateur at Pebble Beach, when Spencer was a cocky young University of New Mexico star, that he added to his growing reputation as a hot-tempered bad boy. After a freshman year of too much partying at UCLA, he transferred to New Mexico, where he settled down as a student and a player.
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In the state match play finals, which Levin lost 4 and 3 to Patrick Nagle, witnesses claim that Levin drew a club, cursed out Don and urinated just off a green. Though Spencer has admitted to urinating on the course, though not as close to the 8th green as has been suggested, Don, who was caddying for Spencer that day, doesn't recall any of those events occurring.
"He didn't do much out of the ordinary when he was a younger player," Don said. "It was more of him being in the spotlight at a younger age and people taking liberties in what they wrote about him. A lot of things have caught on with hearsay through the years.
"If you talk to players on tour they will tell you that he's a total professional. But like most of the guys out there, he gets aggravated. If they didn't, they probably wouldn't be out here."
Still, by the time Spencer arrived at Shinnecock Hills that next summer for the 2004 U.S. Open, some of the players had heard the stories about his alleged bad behavior. But he would quiet their doubts about him with a tie for 13th that included a hole-in-one on the par-3 17th in his first round. He rode that phenomenal success right into the 2004 California State Amateur, where he got sweet redemption by winning it all with a 4 and 3 win over Buzz Peel.
"Everybody knew he was going to win from the very first day. He was hitting it dead straight every time he hit it," Don said. "It was just one of those things where he just had to go through the motions to win.
"He was just that much on top of his game. You line him up and give him the club and he hits the pin. It was an easy job for me."
Don won't be caddying for his son this week. That's the job of Mike Hicks, who has been a tour caddie since 1980. Hicks, who caddied for the late Payne Stewart, has been a calming presence for Levin. He's an even-tempered man with loads of experience.
"Spencer has really matured," Hicks said. "He's learned how to handle the responsibility of what comes with being a professional golfer who has obligations to fans and sponsors."
Every tour player has to contend some with these growing pains. Spencer is not alone in this struggle and it's a good thing probably that his father has been through some of these same experiences.
"I've tried to do with Spencer some of the things that I would have done differently in hindsight when I was a player," Don said.
At Phoenix, Spencer put a brand new TaylorMade White Burner driver in the bag that Don says is easily getting him 10 more yards of carry. Tiger Woods might be the headliner this week at Pebble Beach, but with none of this year's PGA Tour winners in the field, Spencer has to be considered a favorite, based on his performance last week and his past record at the venue.
Yet no matter how he plays, Don will feel the results of every shot, even if he's not watching.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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