- Bob Harig, Golf Writer, ESPN.com
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WINTER GARDEN, Fla. -- He was the darling of the 2004 U.S. Open, a cocksure 20-year-old who slammed clubs and spoke his mind. Cigarette smoke billowed from beneath his visor, and he did all he could to keep a smoldering temper in check. A first-round ace and a final-round, final-hole clutch par putt were perfect bookends to a perfect week.
Spencer Levin made a name for himself at Shinnecock by tying for 13th and earning a return trip to the tournament. The following week he won the California State Amateur. That fall he returned to school at the University of New Mexico and earned first-team all-America honors.
A year later, on the eve of the U.S. Open, Levin turned pro, skipping college to play for pay.
He's still trying to live up to all the hype.
Levin, now 23 and further along in his desire to kick the smoking habit and not kick clubs down the fairway, is certainly not the first player with promise to find the road to the PGA Tour filled with bumps and detours. Even here at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, Levin stepped into one of those ruts when he took an illegal drop on Wednesday, costing himself a one-stroke penalty.
Who knows if that mistake will make a difference come Monday, when the six-day, 108-hole Q-school comes to an end at Orange County National?
"At least I've got somewhere to play," said Levin, who shot 69 Friday and noted that by making it to the final stage, he will at the very least have conditional status next year on the Nationwide Tour. "Hopefully, I'll play well enough to make it to the [PGA] Tour."
Levin's stretch of good play during and after the U.S. Open three years ago suggested a bright future.
In addition to his high finish at the Open and his victory at the State Am, the native of Elk Grove, Calif., also won the prestigious Porter Cup and the Scratch Players Championship. He then finished inside of the top six in 10 of 13 collegiate tournaments.
By the time the next U.S. Open rolled around at Pinehurst, Levin was ready to start earning paychecks, despite a year of collegiate eligibility remaining.
"If I had gone back to school, I wasn't going to be able to graduate in a year anyway, so going back for a year of school didn't make much sense," Levin said. "I had a contract [lined up] with MacGregor, and they were offering a pretty good amount of money to turn pro. I felt like my game was ready. Looking back, I don't think what I did was bad. I'm happy I did what I did.
"I had a lot of fun playing college golf; that wasn't an issue. It was more the fact that school would always be there. I felt it was my time."
After the '05 Open, Levin got a few PGA Tour exemptions, then went to Q-school and didn't make it to the finals. Same thing last year. This year, Levin headed to Canada and played the Canadian Tour, where he won twice and finished second on the money list.
That helped him advance to the second stage of Q-school, where he tied for seventh in Panama City Beach, Fla., to reach the final stage.
Levin's father, Don, played the PGA Tour briefly in the 1970s and knows that success as an amateur does not guarantee greatness. Not even for his son.
"It's more the system than anything else," Don Levin said. "The system that our young American players go through is so much more difficult and harder. They don't get the support. Look at this kid [Rory] McIlroy [from Ireland]. You know this kid is going to get a thousand exemptions until he gets through. In Australia, their young kids get so many opportunities and look how much success they have over here. Our kids don't get the same opportunities. They get to play in the co-sanctioned events down there, because there are so many of them that are so good.
"Take any solid player and ask him to go through Q-school here and there is no guarantee that he is going to make it. But when it's all said and done, the quality player will shake out over a period of time."
It's just that nobody wants to keep coming back here and having to make it this way. If Levin can at least get status on the Nationwide Tour, he can gain more experience and make it to the PGA Tour by finishing among the top 25 money winners during the 2008 season.
Of course, that was far from his mind Friday. Levin made four birdies in a five-hole stretch of his back nine to put himself within striking distance of his PGA Tour card. The top 25 and ties get to play in the big leagues next year, which will be a long way from Canada, where the purses are small and the exposure is the same.
"I'm trying to think about the big tour," said Levin, who was one shot outside of the top 25 after the third of six rounds. "I figure if I try and get that, set my goals high, then go from there. I'm not worried about that. If I try my hardest on every shot, that's all I can do. Add it up in the end, look in the mirror and say I did my best, that's about it."
Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
He was the chain-smoking, temper-tantrum-in-waiting darling of the 2004 U.S. Open, but three years later Spencer Levin is still trying to make it big.