Spencer Levin realizes that a one-shot lead going into the final round means next to nothing. If he didn't learn this by blowing a six-shot lead at the Phoenix Open earlier this year, he was reminded of it on the back nine Saturday at the Memorial.
For the longest time, Levin simply couldn't miss. He chipped in for eagle from behind the fifth green. He holed a chip from 30 yards short of the 10th green for birdie, this one giving him a four-shot lead on a tough day at Muirfield Village.
Eight holes later, his lead was down to one over Rory Sabbatini.
If that wasn't enough, a collection of stars and proven players were lined up behind him — including four-time Memorial champion Tiger Woods.
Levin relied on a few good breaks and one good par save to match the low round of the day with a 3-under 69, giving him another chance at his first PGA Tour victory and an opportunity to get into the U.S. Open on Sunday without having to go through a 36-hole qualifier.
The circumstances are far different from when Levin lost that six-shot lead in Phoenix, not only the margin but the caliber of players chasing him. He'll find out Sunday if he learned from his failure, though the self-styled Californian already is loaded with perspective.
"I did learn that I still got to play golf, I still got to eat the same stuff, still have the same friends, still have the same family, so nothing really changed," he said. "Obviously, you want to win when you're in positions. But I'm just going to go out there tomorrow and have fun. Nothing really changed in my life, and I don't think anything will change that big in my life if I do win. It's just going out there and try and do my best."
It might take more than that.
Levin, who had one of only three rounds in the 60s, was at 8-under 208 and will play in the final group with Sabbatini, a six-time PGA Tour winner who shot 71.
The attention figures to be on the twosome in front of them — Rickie Fowler (69), the Quail Hollow winner who has been playing his best golf over the last month, and Woods, whose other win this year came in demanding conditions at Bay Hill. Woods bogeyed two of the last three holes for a 73.
Right behind them were Ryo Ishikawa (71), Henrik Stenson (71) and Jonathan Byrd (72), with Vijay Singh (69) on the outskirts of contention, six shots behind.
"Four shots is definitely manageable around this golf course, considering the conditions and what they're going to be tomorrow," Woods said. "A lot of guys are still in this ballgame. It'll be an exciting day tomorrow."
Levin provided plenty of excitement during the first few hours Saturday.
For a guy who has never won, Levin is easy to identify. He twists and turns his body on just about every shot, willing it to turn in various directions. He rarely is without a cigarette. And he lets the world know exactly what he's thinking. This is not the stereotype of a golfing robot.
If he sounds as if winning or losing doesn't matter, don't believe it.
Levin's father, Don, played against tournament host Jack Nicklaus in the early 1980s, including a U.S. Open. Levin grew up in the game, and knows exactly what's at stake on Sunday — his first win on tour, a chance to shake hands with Nicklaus in more than just a casual greeting.
"I'm excited," he said. "It's all the practice and work from being a kid. This is what I've dreamed of, to be in the lead of a tournament, especially Jack's tournament. This is one of the biggest tournaments on the tour. You couldn't put yourself in a better position."
"All those years and all that work and practice is going to come down to tomorrow," he said. "And I'm just really fired up about it."
Levin rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt on the second hole. From behind the green on the par-5 fifth, with the green running away from him, his chip hit the pin and dropped for eagle. After going out in 32, he appeared to be in trouble on the 10th when his second shot came up 30 yards short. No problem. He holed that chip for birdie to become the only player all week to reach 10-under par.
At that point, Levin had a four-shot lead and looked to be building the kind of third-round margin he had in Phoenix. Muirfield Village was such a stern test, however, that it wouldn't allow it. The par 5s on the back nine — along with the delicate par-3 12th over the water — were into a strong wind. It was equally difficult to control shots with the wind at the back, and the greens were faster than they have been all week.
Levin found the back bunker at No. 12 and wisely played away from the flag to avoid going through the green, making a bogey. He was walking after his tee shot on the par-3 16th, believing it would land near the flag, and then stopped in his tracks when it bounced over the green. He missed a 4-foot putt for par, and then nearly made another bogey on the 17th when he hooked his tee shot into the bunker and chose to chip out sideways. He escaped with par by making a 15-foot putt.
Woods expected much more from his game, especially the way he controlled the ball when the wind was at its worst. He holed a 20-foot birdie putt from the fringe on the opening hole, got up-and-down from a bunker on the par-5 seventh for another birdie and made the turn in good shape.
But he pulled his tee shot on the 10th hole into the wind and couldn't reach the green, found the back bunker on the par-3 12th that forced him to settle for bogey and couldn't make a putt over the last three holes — a three-putt from 20 feet on the 16th for bogey, a 10-footer for birdie on the 17th, and another 10-footer for par on the last hole when his approach rolled back off the green.
"I probably shot the highest score I could have shot today considering the way I hit it," Woods said.
Woods already has won the Memorial more than anyone, and if he can rally from four shots to win on Sunday, he would join tournament host Jack Nicklaus at No. 2 in career wins on the PGA Tour at 73.
"I can't look at it that way," Woods said. "I have to look at it like I'm four back. And I know conditions are going to be difficult again."