Insider: Patience pays off for Levin in return from injury

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Spencer Levin currently ranks 42nd on the Tour money list.

CANONSBURG, Pa. – Spencer Levin wasn’t exactly angling for extra starts.

Those five rehab entries on the Tour seem sufficient enough. Levin even held them for the regular season’s end, letting his surgically repaired thumb fully heal while creating a bit of a springboard into October’s new PGA TOUR season.

Then things got pleasantly complicated. Levin nearly won last week in Boise, falling to Kevin Tway in a playoff. Perhaps he doesn’t need the full cache of starts – yet more might come his way.

Levin’s runner-up finish left him at No.42 on the money list, suddenly in range to grab one of the 75 spots available in the Tour Finals. However, his PGA TOUR spot already is secure for next year via a major medical exemption.

“Yeah, it’s kind of weird,” Levin said following a practice round for this week’s Mylan Classic. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play those or not. But it’s nice to have options.”

If nothing else, last week’s performance reassured the California native that he was wise to not rush back from surgery to fix torn ligaments in his left thumb – even if it rendered this season irrelevant.

“I really didn’t want to come back in the middle of the year,” he said. “For about the last month and a half, my hand felt good. It didn’t hurt at all. So I knew I was probably ready, and I even waited that extra month.

“It’s just nice to come out here in competition and see good shots again. But honestly I didn’t really know [what might happen]. I didn’t have any expectations.”

Levin hasn’t been seen on the PGA TOUR since last September, when his FedExCup run came to an end at the Deutsche Bank Championship. A few weeks later, he was working on his game at home when he struck a shot that sent a burning pain through his hand.

“I was just fooling around,” he said, “and all of a sudden I couldn’t grip the club.”

An MRI showed a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Though doctors were split on whether surgery was necessary, Levin decided it was better than the alternative.

“Might as well do it,” he said. “They said if I didn’t get surgery, it’d still be alright but it would just hurt forever. So why do I want to do that? I told them to just give me a new thumb.”

It was an apt end to a 2012 season that had begun with such promise for Levin but ended in frustration.

He took a six-shot lead into the final round of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, but a closing 75 opened the door for Kyle Stanley to pass him. He also led by three with nine holes left at the Memorial Tournament, but couldn’t hold back Tiger Woods.

Levin made just three of eight cuts the rest of the year. And when he withdrew from the Deutsche Bank after an opening 80, matters were further complicated by two deaths in the family.

“It was a lot of stuff all at once,” he said. “I was really down on myself and burned out on golf, so to speak. It’s something I’ve loved to do my whole life – now I’m playing on the PGA TOUR and I’m not even in the right frame of mind.”

In a sense, the layoff might have been as beneficial on Levin’s mental state as on his thumb. He actually was cleared to return in January, but a few rounds at home told him it was far too soon.

“There was no way,” he said. “I was flinching at [contact] and all that stuff. Then at the end of every round, it hurt like hell and I’d have to wait a couple days to go practice again. I knew I wasn’t even close to being ready.”

It was at that point that Levin decided to take the year off. “It was kind of fun for awhile,” he said, “like taking a long vacation.”

But even long vacations can get mundane. Levin spent a lot of time hanging with friends and attending games of his favorite Northern California sports teams, but even that got old after a while.

Finally pain-free in May, Levin entered U.S. Open qualifying and nearly made it through. He was on the bubble coming down the homestretch in Columbus, falling short by two despite a second-round 67.

“I was going out there just happy to be there, we’ll just see, no expectations,” Levin said. “Then all of a sudden with four or five holes to go, I was like, ‘I can qualify for the Open.’

“It definitely happened quicker than expected, but it was fun to get those feelings again. It gave me peace of mind to know I could still play golf.”

Even so, Levin didn’t rush back. Six more weeks passed before Levin’s first rehab start, missing the cut at the Midwest Classic. Moving on to Boise, he posted nothing worse than a 67 and made a Sunday charge with a 63 to force the playoff.

“That was fun, the first time in a long time,” he said. “I haven’t felt like that in a while, where you’re actually fired up and stuff when you’re playing. … It was kind of like you never left. It was kind of cool to have those feelings again.”

He’s hoping to catch those vibes again this week. Plans call for Levin to tee it up in Knoxville and Omaha as well, though he may rethink things if he’s eligible for the Finals. The goal is still to be ready for the Open, launching the PGA TOUR’s new fall start.

“I’m excited and have a different outlook now,” Levin said. “[The layoff] made me realize how much I like playing golf competitively. I’m lucky to be able to do this for a living. That’s the attitude I’ve got now.”