The Navy Man, the Bad Boy and the Fighter
Three relative unknowns are well worth following.
Thursday, February 9, 2012
Even casual fans know the names Tiger and Lefty. And they should, especially since at least one of the previous AT&T Pro-Am champs will take the title in 2012 (see box, right). But this year, some of the most compelling stories in Del Monte Forest are found down the rankings with far less recognizable names like Billy, Spencer and Bowditch. They include a Navy veteran finding his way down the fairway after spending a crucial chunk of his career in the military, a former hot-head renegade searching for redemption, and a damaged man clawing his way out of the depths of depression.
From Destroyer to Green
Yogi Berra. David Robinson. Roger Staubach. Billy Hurley III.
Each of those athletes served in the U.S. Navy before beginning their careers as professional athletes. All except Berra graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. And all except Hurley can be called one of the best to ever play his respective sport.
Hurley became the school’s first graduate to earn a PGA Tour card with a 25th-place finish on last year’s Nationwide Tour money list. But his journey there has been a nautical mile from typical.
Keeping a golf game professional-level sharp during the start of a five-year service obligation stateside with the U.S.S. Gettysburg on the Atlantic coast of northern Florida is virtually impossible. And he played even less during two deployments aboard the U.S.S. Chung-Hoon.
“I only played twice [while with the Hoon],” Hurley says. “Once in Okinawa, [Japan], and on the next deployment in the Philippines.” By comparison, his 2005 Walker Cup teammate Anthony Kim played more than 52 tournaments and 600 rounds over that time period.
Based out of Pearl Harbor, Hurley’s destroyer was shorter than Pebble’s par-three 17th. For around two years, it was also Hurley’s home, office, and, on very rare occasions, his driving range.
“I brought my clubs on board, but they collected rust,” he says with a laugh.
The Chung Hoon brought Hurley to the Persian Gulf in the summer of ’07, where the ship and her crew guarded Iraqi oil platforms from Iranian Navy speedboats and Somali pirates. He finished his time in 2009, at the age of 27.
“I felt like an old man playing on the mini-tours with the guys just out of college,” he says.
No one expected much from a man who hadn’t played in half a decade, just like they don’t expect a world-class cellist to takes years off and return to perform at Carnegie Hall right away. But here was Hurley, finishing in the top 10 four times on the 2011 Nationwide Tour.
How in the name of Jack Nicklaus – who had seven majors by the time he was 27 – did Hurley do it?
“I went to the gym as much as possible,” he says. “If I couldn’t work on my game, I wanted to at least get my body ready [to return to golf].”
Being fit helped, but Hurley needed a lot more than bigger biceps to beat back a new wave of recent college graduates vying for a place on the PGA Tour. His comeback came with the small stuff.
“The biggest adjustments [after the time away from golf] were details,” he says, “like taking three or four yards off a seven-iron, or how to react after making three birdies in a row.”
Therein lies his most impressive accomplishment: Regaining the golf IQ, the intuition needed to compete against the world’s best – quickly.
While the odds that he’ll finish on top are as long as Spyglass Hill’s nearly 7,000 yards, familiarity with the AT&T courses will help him stay out of the rough. He earned a sponsor’s exemption last year and learned as he took his lumps (“Pebble chewed me apart,” he says). He got more experience in November’s Callaway Pebble Beach Invitational.
“Pebble is the kind of course you learn something new every time you play,” he says. “I have an idea of what the course is doing.”
And what he’s doing with himself.
From Negative to Positive
Spencer Levin doesn’t care what you think of him. Never has. “I just try to go out and play golf,” Levin says. “And be myself.”
The single-mindedness has helped the Sacramento native become one of the most promising young American players on the PGA Tour. But at times it also makes him seem like an asshole.
Notorious, club-throwing, profanity-filled meltdowns in junior golf can do that to a guy’s image. Or stories of a brief stint at UCLA, where he’s admitted to drinking himself off the team and off campus. Or a championship match in the 2003 California State Amateur, where he was alleged to have, ahem, urinated near the gallery near Pebble Beach’s eighth green. The chain-smoking doesn’t endear him to too many, either.
“I’ve grown up a lot,” Levin says. “I control my anger on the course better now. [Losing my temper] doesn’t help my game.”
Friends, former teammates and most competitive golfers who’ve played with Levin agree, and point to a different side. Beneath the bad-boy exterior is a relentless competitor on the course and a typical Northern California kid off it. (His allegiance lies with the Giants and 49ers.) So says University of New Mexico head coach Glen Millican, where Levin played 2003-2005.
“Spencer had an incredible amount of focus,” Millican says. “Once he teed off, you could tell he was focused on one thing, and that was playing the best golf that he could at the time. He is the most intense competitor I’ve ever coached.”
Despite the intensity, however, Millican insists off the course Levin is “very, very funny.”
Bonus charm: “He was the best on our team at identifying bands on the radio.”
“Anything but country,” Levin adds.
Spencer seems to play to a different beat when he steps on Pebble Beach. He won the highly competitive 2004 California State Amateur here and pulled off a powerhouse T-4 finish in last year’s AT&T.
“It’s a beautiful place, and I enjoy the surroundings,” he says. “There’s just something about it.”
This year he has proven he can play electric golf on any given day after flirting with 59 and ultimately firing a 10-under 62 to open this year’s PGA Tour in San Diego. Last weekend in Phoenix, he rose to a commanding lead heading into the fourth round before a gnarly front nine and a gnarlier double bogey on 15 buried him. Levin’s hoping he can find his game, help golf fans get past his past, and see where he hopes to go: the winner’s circle.
From the Edge and Back
Pebble’s ocean-laced stretch of holes at the turn is considered one of golf’s most diabolical pieces of real estate. Players must navigate their shots on 8, 9 and 10 over and around cliffs that plunge violently to the jagged coastline. Fairways slope in extreme ways. The greens can seem post-card sized. Many of golf’s most elite golfers quiver in their spikes when they see it.
Forgive Steven Bowditch if he’s unimpressed by golf on the edge. He’s been to a far uglier edge. And back.
On a cool spring night in April 2006, the Australian put on all the heaviest clothes he owned for what he thought was the last time. Jumping into the still waters of the pool at his Dallas condo, the weight of the layers of clothes acted like a woolen noose, dragging him to a place where the demons of his depression would be unable to torture him.
He regained consciousness in a local hospital, saved by his then-girlfriend after she found him.
Bowditch returned to his home country broken. He sought help and became involved with beyondblue (a national depression initiative in Australia), but things got worse before they improved. The first two rounds of medication didn’t work. He could barely finish a complete round without breaking down, never mind an entire tournament.
Only after he was put on his third anti-depressent did his health improve, allowing Bowditch to focus on his game.
Now 29 and recently married to a TV producer from his adopted Texas hometown, the 11-year pro from New South Wales has been finally able to concentrate on golf the past few years, and it’s shown.
After the best year of his career in 2010 on the Nationwide Tour, the 6-foot, 200-pound Aussie spent 2011 as a full-time member of the PGA Tour. Although he lost his fully-exempt status by finishing 145 on the season money list, this weekend he returns to the site of his best-ever Tour finish, a T-9 at last year’s AT&T. Further evidence Pebble’s kind of cliffs don’t make him uncomfortable.
A peek ahead at the final foursome that’ll vie for the Waterford crystal trophy.
You heard it here first. Tiger is back. Woods will earn career win number 72 on par-72 Pebble next Sunday. Not because he’s coming off a December win at the thin Chevron Challenge and a T-3 in last month’s stacked tournament in Abu Dhabi, but because with swing coach Sean Foley’s help, the 14-time major champ is swinging the driver and long irons as well as he has in two and a half years. Those drives will set up his genius with the short game all week, and the swap out of clogged Poppy Hills in favor of Monterey Peninsula Country Club means his two biggest nemeses here—inconsistent greens and long round times—will be significantly diminished.
If there are horses for courses, DJ is the Secretariat of Pebble Beach. Averaging 314 off the tee with a towering ball flight able to maximize distance on the soft fairways players face this time of year, the courses in the rotation fit the South Carolinian’s game like sweet tea does Charleston. After winning the AT&T in 2009 and 2010, the five-time Tour champ was shredding the field at the U.S. Open at Pebble through three rounds before an epic collapse the final day. That means the laid back 27-year-old has something to prove. By contending—and not fading—he will.
If DJ’s the horse for the course, here’s your darkhorse coming to light. Look for a smokin’ start from the Georgia Tech grad: His game is molten this season, and he likes it here, finishing second-place at the Pebble Beach Invitational. Starting his third year on Tour, the Southern Californian is posting silly-low rounds, including a 6-under 66 at the demonic South Course at Torrey Pines in San Diego. He won’t hold up to the glare of the spotlight late, but he will figure in through three.
The Sacramento native has only missed the cut once in eight appearances at the AT&T, and has finished in the top 10 twice. He’s also coming off a monster 2011 when he won two talent-heavy tournaments on great courses at the WGC-Cadillac Championship and the AT&T National outside Philadelphia. This is his year to test the leaders late in the tourney.