Fungus is growing in Wayne Levi's golf shoes. Rust is beginning to creep across his clubs, which have been tossed carelessly into the cellar of his five-bedroom tract house on a snowy, muddy lot in upstate New York. As for Levi himself, he's probably at Edna's down the street for the weekly fish fry.
They won't be playing golf in New Hartford, a suburban finger of Utica, until next spring, when the course at the Yahnundasis Golf Club finally thaws. Levi doesn't know what monstrosities, what strange breathing organisms or warm fuzzy growths, will have invaded his golf bag by then, and he doesn't much care. "Whatever's in that bag is still going to be in there wherever I'm going next time," he says.
It's definitely not a golfing landscape, this dreary place where brown rivers pour alongside gray railroad tracks and the names of the mill towns are straight out of James Fenimore Cooper. Levi (rhymes with heavy) learned to play the game in the bare spots between the ice and slush. He was born in Little Falls, just up the thruway from New Hartford, the son of a rifle assembler for a Remington plant in Ilion. He went to high school in Herkimer and did two years of college nearby at that famed golf factory, Oswego State. Except for some time in Florida playing mini-tours, he has never lived anywhere else. "You want to talk about desire?" he says, pointing out his window. "Look at that mess. When it melted I played from patch to patch."
After 13 years of adroit patch-to-patch and steady if utterly forgettable play on the PGA Tour, Levi suddenly won four tournaments this season. He finished the year second on the money list, with $1.02 million, behind Greg Norman, and he is a candidate for the PGA Tour's new Player of the Year award. A nondescript, pallid blond of average height (5'9") and average weight (165), he can no more explain how he manages to commute successfully between the Tour and remote, frost-beaten New Hartford than he can explain why he should break a four-year winless streak in this spectacular way. If there's a simple answer to the latter, it might be his new putter, a custom-fitted, high-tech design that his longtime teacher, Rick Christie of Tampa, snortingly calls "a work of art. I wouldn't be caught dead with it."
December 17, 1990
Maybe Levi's strange, halfway-brilliant career—eight previous victories, ranging from the mildly prestigious to the wholly obscure, and $2,878,207 in earnings—was best summarized a couple of years ago when his agent, Richard Madigan, tried to put together a deal for him to represent a club in South Carolina. The deal fell through when the money man looked Madigan in the eye and said, "I could hire a second cook and two fish cutters for that kind of money. What do I want with Wayne Levi?"
Remarks like that and a season like 1990 occasionally cause Levi to ponder what he might accomplish if he didn't live in a sun-forsaken land, if he worked on his game 12 months of the year and if he weren't quite so dedicated to his four children and his wife, Judy. "I feel like I could do some incredible things if I forsook my family," he says. "Or maybe not. Maybe I wouldn't even be on Tour."
Perhaps the visible turmoil created by preserving a balance between his distant home and the Tour results in an inwardly satisfying concert. Regardless, the subject is not open to debate. Levi would not raise his children anywhere else. They are four blond creatures between the ages of two and 11 who can produce the most astonishing crashes and shrieks.
Maybe Levi's life is sort of like Levi's socks. There's this company that wants him to endorse its socks now that he's so successful. Levi doesn't want to. "They aren't the socks I want," he said. "I've got the ones I want. They're cheap. They're perfect. I get them at K. Mart. Some others are too thick. Some are too thin. These are just right."
On a somber November afternoon, Levi's three daughters—Michelle, Lauren and Chris—decided to do the hair of his only son, two-year-old Brian, and turned his corn silk into a frazzled, streaked mess. "Look at that," Levi mourned. "A human sacrifice." Meanwhile the girls darted off searching for more candy than they already had clenched in their little fists—sugar-coated orange slices, baby Milky Ways, and a bag of M&M's, which suddenly sprayed all over the kitchen floor. "And this is my life," Judy said. Later they will go bowling, which could be dangerous. The last time they went, Michelle got her hand stuck in the bowling ball and it carried her, wailing, halfway down the alley.
Levi has an unwritten rule that he docs not practice at home, even if the weather permits. The only golf equipment in sight is Brian's perfect miniature replica of his father's bag, plus a set of replica clubs. "Brian hits it a ton," Judy says, rolling her eyes. Levi is more concerned at this time of year with his beloved New York Giants or the Syracuse Orangemen, about whom he is so fanatical that he bought a huge arced-screen television, one of his few real luxuries. It obscures much of the living room, and right in front of it is the largest, easiest chair in the house, so he can settle in and scream and groan. His love for the Giants used to cause wrestling matches with his brother, Dale, but then, mere card games did that too. If Wayne lost he threw the cards. Even when he is talking about a pastime as sedate as playing the stock market, his language becomes a blunt instrument. "I gave them a severe beating," Levi says of his triumphant year, in which he rode the ups and downs of the Japanese stock market. "Then I gave them a double beating. I could have given them a triple beating, but that's when I started winning tournaments and my interest went on another track. I could still take a severe hammer to them if this war thing materializes."
His wife, the former Judy Finegan of Whitesboro, is a lively woman who is knee-jerk candid. She was not impressed when she first met Levi in the mid-'70s, in a local establishment called The Sting. "I met him in a bar, a saloon, a dive," she says. She was with a girlfriend, he was with a buddy. He sidled up to her. "Want a drink?" he said.
"No," she said.
"He was such a nerd," she says. "He had his shirt unbuttoned."
Somehow a romance got under way, with periodic interruptions as he made forays onto Florida and New England mini-tours. These days she very occasionally may be found on the Tour, urging her husband on or berating him. It turns out she is every bit as competitive as he is, a bit of a card-thrower herself. "What'd you do that for, dummy?" she has been known to say. Frequently she reminds him that they have four children to put through college. Longtime friend Keith Fergus, a former Tour player and the current University of Houston golf coach, says, laughing, "She's the real force in the family. She's on him like a boot."
Levi doesn't play golf so much as he endures it. He makes his way through his rounds with the kind of frozen expression and bloodless smile you might expect from a bank teller. He doesn't deny that he's in it for the money. Nor does he deny that if he doesn't have a chance of winning or making a fair check, he quits.
"It's not a good way to be, but I don't like expending a lot of energy when I'm so far down the list," he says. "I'm not going to grind over three-or four-foot putts, or worry about the water on one hole. It's a waste of concentration. Whatever I'm going to shoot, just let me shoot it and get out of there."
This attitude has produced some odd gaps in his career. He broke his four-year victory drought by winning the Atlanta Golf Classic in May. Then he followed with wins at the Western Open in June, the Greater Hartford Open in July and the Canadian Open in September. But apart from those wins and one more top-10 finish, he was no higher than 28th in 23 appearances. His scoring average for the season was a miserable 71.91.
At the Buick Classic, in Rye, N.Y., in June, Levi barely made the cut. It was cold and raining, which aggravated a toe injury, he wasn't playing well, he had the family with him, and Hartford, where he usually plays very well, was coming up the next week. So on Sunday he withdrew. "It was crummy," he says. "I said, 'I'm not going to do diddly—I'm going to relax.' I drove up to Hartford and, bing, won the tournament."
Levi has a simple, rhythmic swing that almost never varies. It makes him one of the most accurate and most consistent players from tee to green. It also allows him to drop his clubs for long stretches and pick them up again without suffering a crisis in his game. In 1983, he won the Buick Open despite playing only one tournament in the six previous weeks. "It's as hard for him to swing bad as it is for somebody with a bad swing to swing good," says Christie.
Accuracy was not always his strong suit. In 1972, after leaving Oswego State and entering and leaving the University of South Florida, Levi spent four years struggling on mini-tours, a struggle he financed himself. His first year as a pro was not a happy experience; he had a persistent hook that drove him to fury. Finally one afternoon, while he was playing Quail Hollow near Tampa, he stormed off the course after nine holes and went looking for Christie, whom he had met at South Florida. "I'm going home," he said. "When I come back you won't see any hooks." By that summer the hook was cured, and he won five events on the New England mini-tour. In 1976 he finally got his PGA Tour card, but not before he had first dropped out of a qualifying event in Brownsville, Texas, because he didn't like the weather. "I don't need this aggravation," he told Christie, who was caddying for him. "I'll get the card this summer."
The most obvious deficiency in Levi's career is the fact that in his 13 years on the Tour he has never finished higher than 10th in a major championship. He claims he despises the elitism of the majors. He has never even entered the British Open. The mere thought of the Masters and Magnolia Lane, where a guard once refused to let him pass, agitates him. "I get mad before I even go," he says. "They give you a hard time about tickets, they make you wait, the clubhouse gets the food orders wrong every time, they don't publish the purse so you have to wait for them to tell you how much you're playing for. It's things like that that aggravate you." The U.S. Open torments him almost as much. "It's murder," he says. "Traffic, you can't get in restaurants...." As long as Levi feels this way, chances are that he will continue to fare poorly in the majors, despite his ambition to remedy his record. "To win that many tournaments but not have a major is unusual, he says. "At least a couple of majors should be in there."
He is a loner who calls socializing on the circuit "a waste of time." His routine is to practice, play, go back to the driving range where he'll beat balls until dark, order a pizza in his hotel, flip open his briefcase and read financial publications until he falls asleep. "I'm not there to sightsee, fool around, go to the movies," he says. "I'm there, I work hard."
What Levi may be is sound, a man who knows how to maximize his profits and minimize his losses. He plays his game very much the way he plays the stock market. Idle socializing may be a waste of energy to him, but pro-ams and clinics are not. "You're around a lot of influential people; you can talk business," he says. "I know a lot of guys don't care diddly about that. I think from playing golf you have that instinct to gamble. You're looking at a lot of hazards out there; you learn to stay away from mistakes, when to play more conservatively."
Even when he was winless on the Tour, Levi seemed to find ways to make money. He finished in the top 10 seven times in 1989, despite putting troubles. He is not above entering late-season tournaments in which he knows the fields will be weak. "You can make a nice piece of change," he says. "Let's face it, every time Norman's not in the tournament there's another $100,000 for somebody." Yet his wins this year came against reasonably strong fields. His four-stroke victory in the Western, at difficult Butler National, came over Norman, Payne Stewart, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, Wayne Grady and Jose-Maria Olazabal.
All of which says that Levi is an enigma, an average guy who does things averagely yet produces above-average results. Here is a statistical quirk that appeals to him: He was no better than 40th in any of the 10 PGA Tour statistical categories this season, but on the Tour's performance charts for the decade of the '80s, he ranks in the top 25 in greens in regulation, driving accuracy, par breakers, birdies and scoring average.
Levi doesn't mind being underrated and overlooked. And in fact, it may be useful. "I don't do anything great," he says. "I just do everything good. But if you add it up and then divide, I'll be there."