SAN DIEGO – Not every career follows the script. Spencer Levin and Lucas Glover know this.
For every prospect that rockets to superstardom, there’s a can’t-miss kid who flames out.
For every major champion who goes on to capture multiple Grand Slam events, there is one who spends the rest of his competitive years searching.
Levin seemed poised to take the next step in his career before a death in his family, then a fluky thumb injury.
Glover seemed poised to build on his U.S. Open victory, only to hit rock bottom with his putting and his game.
Now, both are among the seven players within a shot of the lead heading into the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open, and there is a massive opportunity at stake – a chance to forever banish what has been a turbulent few years.
“There’s a saying that you hear a lot,” Glover said, “that when the Tour player is playing well, the golf seems so easy. And when you’re playing poorly, it seems so hard. That is confidence.”
And lately, it’s been in short supply.
Start with Levin. He was the chain-smoking, swaggering 20-year-old who burst onto the national scene at the 2004 U.S. Open. His 13th-place finish at Shinnecock was the best Open finish by an amateur in 33 years, and he was ranked as high as No. 2 in the world, but professional success proved elusive.
Sure, he’s carved out a nice living for himself, earning nearly $6 million in 5 1/2 full seasons on Tour, but the 30-year-old has taken plenty of knocks over the past few years – probably too many for someone his age.
After near-misses in Phoenix and Columbus, Levin was enjoying one of his best years on Tour in 2012 when he received news that his stepbrother, Blake, had died unexpectedly at the age of 28. Levin tried to play the following week, but he withdrew after an opening 80. The two had grown up together and were only six months apart. (Spencer's grandfather also died in 2012.)
Two days after the WD, on Sept. 5, Levin stopped smoking, cold turkey. To fans he was known mostly as the diminutive, cocky 20-something who would blow through a few packs per round, the smoke billowing under his visor. But since, Levin doesn’t spend much time in the gym, nor does he adhere to a strict diet, he wanted to “feel like at least I did good for myself.” So he quit.
There wasn’t a temptation to smoke because he wasn’t playing competitively. A few weeks after Blake’s death, while playing with friends, Levin felt something pop between his wrist and thumb. The pain was so intense that he couldn’t grip a club, and an MRI confirmed that he had torn a ligament in his left thumb. He underwent surgery and sat out eight months.
When he returned, his attitude was awful. He didn’t enjoy being out here.
“And that only got worse on my mind,” he said, “because I should enjoy playing golf. I’ve got a great job, and I do love what I do, but it kind of snowballed.
“I’m feeling like myself again and trying to make things a little easier.”
Entering this season with eight starts remaining on his major medical extension, Levin needed to earn $317,703 or 122.837 FedEx Cup points. An 8-foot par putt on the 72nd hole in Mexico – the final round before the Tour takes a seven-week winter break – secured full status for this season.
With the turmoil of the past few years behind him, maybe now is the time for Levin to fulfill the lofty expectations that were thrust upon him as a hotshot amateur.
“It’s a weird thing,” he said, “because people always say, ‘This guy should have won more.’ I never really believed in that. When you play competitive golf and you’re out there when it’s happening, when somebody says they didn’t reach their potential, who’s to say? Maybe that’s just how good that guy was, or there’s something that holds that guy back from not doing it.
“Relative to a lot of people it’s been good, and relative to a lot of people it hasn’t. It’s all timing. Maybe tomorrow will be a good day for me.”
There haven’t been many good days for Glover over the past few years.
Consider where he was in 2009: a U.S. Open champion, with $3.69 million in earnings and a top-10 spot on the money list.
“Sometimes it seems like yesterday,” he said of Bethpage, “and sometimes it seems like 20 years.”
Glover won again at Quail Hollow in 2011, but over the past 3 1/2 years he has combined for two top 10s and 44 missed cuts (73 starts).
His troubles can be traced to an ice-cold putter. In 2013, he was ranked 178th on Tour in strokes gained-putting. Last year, he was dead last, at No. 177,losing nearly a stroke and a half (1.472) to the field on the greens.
An epiphany came Tuesday of Humana week. Glover’s caddie, Don Cooper, suggested that his man widen his stance and hit putts, not stroke them – like in the old days. It worked, because Glover shot four rounds in the 60s and finished T-15 that week, his best result in 10 months.
Here at Torrey Pines, Glover hasn’t been spectacular on the greens, but it’s been plenty good enough. After a 5-for-14 effort off the tee on Thursday, his first stop after the round wasn’t to the putting green but to the range.
“My putter has bailed me out,” he said. “It’s the first time in a couple of years that I’ve been able to say that.”
Sunday is an important day for Glover, who is in the final year of his exemption for winning the Open. (An extra year was added for his ’11 Quail title.) Last year he was 185th in FedEx Cup earnings, and he needs to capitalize on the good weeks when they come.
When asked if there’s any added pressure this year, knowing that at age 35 he’s reached a critical juncture in his career, he said, “If I start thinking about that, you start thinking about having to make the cut and having to make a check and you forget about winning golf tournaments. Every guy shows up on Monday trying to win. That’s the mindset I have to have. I can’t think about it any other way.”
Because there is still plenty of time to rewrite the script.