The most important tee shot of his life was only two hours away,
but Spencer Levin struck a distinctly detached pose. It was a
little after 10 last Thursday morning, and Levin, a 20-year-old
amateur from Elk Grove, Calif., stood in the driveway of the
Southampton, N.Y., house where he and his family were staying,
leaned against a car and insouciantly dragged on a cigarette, a
habit he picked up as a sophomore in high school. "I usually
smoke about half a pack a day, but this week I've probably
smoked more," he said. That would be Levin's only
acknowledgement that he was feeling the pressure of playing in
his first U.S. Open. "I'm sure I'll be nervous on the 1st tee,
but I'm always nervous on the 1st tee," he added. "I'll be
fine, unless I have to make an eight-footer to win the
Bold words from a 5'8", 155-pound qualifier who had never before
played in a PGA Tour event, much less a major championship, but
before the week was over Levin showed that he could back up that
kind of talk. Thanks to remarkably precise ball striking
(especially off the tee) and a deft touch around the greens,
Levin (pronounced le-VEEN), a junior at New Mexico, shot an
eight-over-par 288 at Shinnecock Hills to end up 13th, the best
finish by an amateur in the Open since 1971. Not only did Levin
far exceed his goal of making the cut, but he also provided one
of the week's most memorable moments by acing the 179-yard 17th
hole late Thursday afternoon. The hole in one, only the third by
an amateur in Open history, was Levin's first, and it came at a
propitious time--immediately after play had resumed following a
two-hour weather delay but before ESPN's first-round coverage
ended. Moments after Levin's ball took two hops and dived into
the jar, ESPN replayed the shot, then showed Levin strutting
toward the green, his collar turned up, his shoulders arched and
a satisfied grin on his face. The only thing missing was the
soundtrack from Saturday Night Fever.
The ace highlighted a one-under 69, but reporters waiting for him
behind the 18th green were surprised by his nonchalance. Yes, the
hole in one was "pretty cool," he allowed, but "it's only one
round of golf, you know." Levin was more effusive later. "It was
certainly the perfect time to have my first hole in one," he
said. "That's definitely something I'll remember for the rest of
Pretty cool were not the words used to describe Levin as he made
his way through the junior ranks in California. Levin's father,
Don, was an All-America at San Jose State and played pro golf for
12 years, three of them, in the early '80s, on the PGA Tour. Don
has been teaching golf in Sacramento for the last 15 years, yet
he did his best to steer Spencer toward baseball. When Spencer
did play golf, it was almost always at tournaments. "I only
wanted him to associate golf with competition, not recreation,"
says Don, who caddied for Spencer at Shinnecock Hills. "I pushed
him away from the game because I know how hard it is. He was a
fiery competitor, so if he did play in tournaments, I knew he
June 27, 2004
Despite playing infrequently, Spencer won the Northern California
high school championship as a sophomore, and thereafter quit
baseball and focused on golf. Don always emphasized accuracy over
distance as he helped shape Spencer's game, and by the time
Spencer was a senior in high school he was the No. 3-ranked
junior in the country. But while he could control his ball, he
couldn't get a handle on his temper, and his reputation for
petulance overshadowed his talent. "His attitude on the course
was embarrassing--throwing clubs, foul language, you name it,"
says Oklahoma State coach Mike Holder, who tried unsuccessfully
to get Levin to sign with the Cowboys two years ago. "I didn't
want to have anything to do with him, but my assistant talked me
into recruiting him. He was hard not to notice because his scores
were always good."
Levin says he picked up a tendency to run hot not only from his
father, who was once fined by the Tour for unbecoming conduct,
but also from his paternal grandfather, Buck Levin, 73, a former
scratch golfer and eight-time champion at Valley High Country
Club in Sacramento. "Whenever I threw a club while playing with
my grandmother, she'd always say, 'That's why I don't play with
your grandfather anymore. He's king of the club throwers,'"
Spencer says. Adds Levin's mother, Carlene, "The problem was that
Spencer was so good, people ignored [his bad behavior]. It was
never nipped in the bud."
Levin eventually chose to attend UCLA, but that experience went
sour soon after he arrived in Westwood in the fall of 2002.
Although he established himself as the team's best player during
his first semester, he just as quickly fell behind academically,
missed some practices, broke a fairway wood in anger during a
tournament according to Bruins coach O.D. Vincent (Levin says he
didn't break a club), and was suspended from the team in March.
He was reinstated three weeks later but played poorly thereafter.
Soon after failing to qualify for the NCAA championships, Levin
dropped out of school and returned to Elk Grove, leaving Carlene
to inform Vincent that Spencer had left.
"I was immature," Levin says. "I didn't take care of business in
the classroom and was drinking too much. Everybody drinks in
college, but I'd be drinking even if I had to get up early the
next day. I was going to flunk a couple of classes, so I decided
Levin's reputation took another hit that May, when he lost in the
final of the California State Amateur at Pebble Beach. According
to published reports, Levin tossed a few clubs, berated his
father for incorrectly reading a couple of putts and urinated
near the 8th green in view of the gallery. (Spencer says he was
at least 60 yards from the green, where no one could see him,
when he answered nature's call.)
Nevertheless, Levin made some significant strides that summer and
fall. He shored up his grades at Sacramento City Junior College
and, more important, had a pair of sessions with sports
psychologist Glen Albaugh, who works with several Tour players.
Albaugh showed Levin the value of a postshot routine in dealing
with bad shots. A few days after his first session with Albaugh,
Levin won a major tournament, the Azalea Amateur.
In January, Levin enrolled at New Mexico and has demonstrated a
new equanimity while reestablishing himself as one of the
nation's best college players. He set a single-season school
record for stroke average (70.58), was a second-team All-America
and led the country in greens hit in regulation (80.2%). Even
Holder complimented Levin at the NCAA championships for the
calmness he evinced after bad shots. "A little club slamming or
an F bomb here and there isn't necessarily bad, but then you have
to move on," Levin says. "I've learned that to be a good golfer,
you have to let stuff go. You can't let your anger affect your
For the most part, Levin was on his best behavior at Shinnecock
Hills, especially after missing a two-foot putt for par on the
final hole of the second round. ("It's easy not to get angry when
you have thousands of people watching you," he said later.) One
of his few breaches was broadcast on Saturday by NBC. After
barely missing an eight-footer for birdie at the 6th hole, Levin
crouched down and tapped his putter head a little too violently
on the green, leading NBC analyst Johnny Miller to say, "Don't
bang that green there. That's not good."
In the end Levin's impressive play was the best evidence that he
has matured. "I've learned so much in the last year and a half
about golf and about life," he said after Sunday's round.
"Usually my temper is my biggest weakness, but this week it was
probably the best thing about my game."
Later in the evening Levin stood on the 18th green between Retief
Goosen and Phil Mickelson, basking in applause after being
awarded the medal that goes to the low amateur. There's no
telling how many such moments are in Levin's future, so long as
he keeps his cool.
"HIS ATTITUDE ON THE COURSE WAS EMBARRASSING," says Holder,
"throwing clubs, foul language, you name it."
"I WAS IMMATURE," Levin says of his UCLA days. "I didn't take
care of business in the classroom and was drinking too much."