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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Spencer Levin stood with his back to the Bay Hill scoring trailer, his right hand pawing at a pack of Marlboros stuffed in his pants pocket. The race to Augusta National affects golfers in different ways, and Levin was anxious. Across the street on Bay Hill's 18th green, Arnold Palmer, four-time Masters champion and host of his eponymous Tour event, was handing the silver trophy to Martin Laird. Palmer and Laird will grace the 1st tee at Augusta National next week; Arnie as a ceremonial starter, Laird as a contestant. Oh, how Levin wishes to join them.
"I have one more shot at it," Levin said in the gloaming. "A one-spot qualifier—a four-rounder."
Levin was referring to this week's Shell Houston Open, where a victory will add one more player—if he hasn't already qualified—to a swelling (99 and counting) Masters field. Levin won't be alone. Of the 144 players in the field at Houston, 111 will be looking for a ticket to Augusta. So far this season seven pros have qualified for the Masters by winning a Tour event, and four got in through victories after the 2010 Masters to the beginning of this year. These proud 11 are by far the largest contingent of party crashers since Augusta National reinstated the Tour-win-and-you're-in exemption in 2008.
Making things even more delicious, the first quarter of the 2011 Tour season has been like a box of chocolates—you never know who's going to win.
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it was Laird, a 28-year-old Scotsman, who overcame a beastly setup, a raft of mid-round errors and a closing 75 to win his second PGA Tour event, by a shot over Steve Marino. For added value, Laird is also the only Scot to win on American soil since Sandy Lyle—at the 1988 Masters. When Laird two-putted the final green from Tampa or thereabouts, he punched the air with his right fist. Playing alongside Laird for the second straight day, Levin tapped in for 76 and looked for the lessons.
"These big tournaments—the big invitationals or majors—you can't go at pins," Levin said. "You almost [have] to pretend there's no pin on the green. Early in the round I was trying to hit it close and that cost me two or three shots, and that could have been it."
Before moving on to Houston, the 26-year-old Levin walked over to a fence in the scoring area and signed autographs as the sun went down. Laird was swaddled in a blue Bay Hill blazer. "Tough course out there," Laird told Palmer, whose tanned and handsome face smiled even more.
In the club's 50th year, Palmer's Bay Hill layout battered the golfers, providing instant feedback as players prepared to dive into the major-championship calendar. Tiger Woods continued his impersonation of a middling pro.
Phil Mickelson took his son, Evan, to Universal Orlando for his eighth birthday after the opening round (Evan was too small to go on the Incredible Hulk ride) but was all but invisible inside Arnie's ropes.
Even before the tournament the King was hip to the sea change taking place in golf. Tiger and Phil no longer own the game. They pay rent like everyone else.