Unlikely leader knows the stakes

DUBLIN, Ohio — Come along for the ride with Spencer Levin.

Buckle up.

The 27-year-old Levin held a four-shot lead after 10 holes Saturday at the Memorial Tournament, his big swings and a couple of long-distance chips creating some breathing room between himself and the player who was in second place at the time: Tiger Woods.

The wild stuff was just beginning, though. Levin overcame two back-nine bogeys — and a swing on hole 17 so hard he nearly lost his driver — to make a steady finish. He leads the tournament at 8-under headed into Sunday’s final round, one shot ahead of his Saturday playing partner, Rory Sabbatini, three ahead of Rickie Fowler and four ahead of Woods.

Levin’s round of 69 tied Fowler and Vijay Singh for Saturday’s best, but he lapped the field when it came to stunned facial expressions and various displays of emotion. He’ll need to channel that as he enters the final round as the leader, looking for his first PGA Tour victory.

The only previous time the fiery, diminutive Levin led after three rounds was in February at the Phoenix Open, and he led by six shots. However, he fell apart and finished third, tying the third-largest blown lead in PGA history.

“People have been asking me what (I learned from the last time), and I don’t know yet,” Levin said. “I’ll be able to answer that when I’m done.

“Obviously you want to win when you’re in that position, but I’m just going to go out there (Sunday) and have fun. Nothing really changed in my life last time, and I don’t think anything will change that big in my life if I do win.”

Either way, fans who haven’t seen Levin before will probably see him Sunday as he and Sabbatini will be in the final group, right behind Woods and Fowler. And those who haven’t previously watched Levin will get to see his animated reactions to shots both good and bad.

While many golfers step back for a deep breath in tense moments, Levin prefers an on-course cigarette. And though he still isn’t shy about showing his emotions, a previous stint in some anger management courses has helped him tone it down — at least a bit.

“I still get really angry,” he said. “I just do a better job now of not making as much of a scene.”

As for the smoking?

“It’s legal,” Levin said. “There are a lot worse things you could be doing.”

His up-and-down round Saturday called for a few nicotine breaks, at least one of which was caught by television cameras. Levin pushed a par putt on the par-3 eighth and was walking towards the ball in disgust when the ball hit the left lip, took a full rotation around the cup and eventually dropped. Levin froze, looking dumbfounded, but relieved.

He birdied the ninth to open a two-shot lead, then chipped in from 91 feet for birdie on the 10th. It was his second chip-in of the day following one for eagle on the fifth that hit the pin and dropped in.

He smiled.

“It’s nice to have the good body language,” he said.

Levin is currently No. 77 in the World Golf Rankings, though he’ll have a chance to automatically qualify for the US Open in two weeks in his native California if he can finish third or better here. The top 60 on June 11 gain automatic qualification.

For now, he’s scheduled to play 36 holes here in the Columbus area Monday in the US Open Sectional Qualifier. Eighteen of those holes will be played at the Ohio State University Scarlet Course, which Levin knows well from his time on the Nationwide Tour.

First, though, he’s in position to win a much more prestigious tournament, the one founded by Ohio State’s most famous golfer, Jack Nicklaus. He has the world’s most famous golfer in Woods and two who have played very well lately in Sabbatini and Fowler on his heels. He’s playing with a stand-in caddy, too, in friend and former Nationwide Tour foe John Turcott, who’s also set to play in Monday’s qualifier.

Headed to Sunday, Levin and Turcott stand together on the big stage. Levin has made 12 of 16 cuts this year, finishing in the top 10 twice and in the top 25 five times. He’s made $968,111 in 2012 thus far. The winner here will receive $1,116,000.

Maybe Sunday really will be life-changing.

“I’m excited,” Levin said. “It’s all the practice and work from being a kid up to this point. This is what I’ve dreamed of — to be in the lead of a tournament, especially Jack’s tournament, something like this.

“This is one of the biggest tournaments on Tour. You couldn’t put yourself in better position. All those years and all that work and practice is going to come down to tomorrow, and I’m just fired up about it. I’m really excited.”