2004: Attitude Adjustment
By Jay A. Coffin
Spencer Levin is trying hard to shed his bad-boy reputation. In high school, Levin was as well known for his club-throwing and profane outbursts as he was for posting low numbers. The 20-year-old Californian isn’t overly concerned with what others think, but he finally has discovered that a controlled temper helps him to better control his golf game.
Because of that, the Marlboros that frequently dangle from Levin’s lips aren’t the only things smokin’ as he heads into the U.S. Amateur next week at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y.
A breakout summer for Levin continued Aug. 6 when he finished second at the Pacific Coast Amateur, losing to Michael Putnam in a sudden-death playoff. That followed a strong showing at the U.S. Open (where he was low amateur, finishing T-13); victories at the California Amateur, Scratch Players Amateur and Porter Cup; and a runner-up finish at the Southern Amateur.
That Levin didn’t erupt after four-putting the 70th hole at the Pacific Coast Amateur speaks volumes about his reformation, which he attributes simply to maturity.
“Everybody can tell you, ‘You’ve got to change, you’ve got to change,’ but until you actually learn it yourself, it doesn’t sink in,” Levin says.
Levin’s character came under scrutiny during a 10-month stretch from September 2002 to June 2003. He had arrived at UCLA as a hotshot freshman but never was able to juggle golf with his studies because he was more interested in the social aspects of college life. Levin (pronounced La-VEEN) often stayed out late drinking, cut classes and quickly fell behind academically. He missed practices and became a distraction on an otherwise veteran team. In May, Levin skipped out of Westwood – before the end of the season – without alerting coach O.D. Vincent.
“I got along with everybody on the team but I didn’t take care of my business,” Levin says. “I missed workouts and my grades were bad. I didn’t take care of the stuff off the golf course. It was all my fault.”
Vincent says he is sorry Levin’s stay at UCLA didn’t work out, but he seems genuinely happy with Levin’s recent achievements.
“I give Spencer a tremendous amount of credit for getting our team on the right track and giving us a competitive edge while he was here,” Vincent says. “He’s very competitive and expects to win. Spencer is a great player. The more confidence he gets, the better he plays. I don’t see his success ending anytime soon.”
But Levin’s experience at UCLA wasn’t necessarily the bottom of his learning curve. In June 2003, an episode occurred during the California Amateur that not only has become part of West Coast golf lore, but has taken on a life of its own. During a 4-and-3 loss to Patrick Nagle in the championship match at Pebble Beach, Levin slammed clubs into the ground after poor shots and launched into numerous profanity-laced tirades at his father and caddie, Don Levin. At the eighth hole during the first round of the 36-hole final, Levin urinated not far from the green – though his proximity to the sparse gallery depends on whom is asked. Some accounts said Levin was about 10 paces off the green when he took relief, clearly within view of others. Levin insists he was at least 50 yards away, down an embankment and out of everyone’s view.
“It all got overblown,” he says. “If I couldn’t play, no one would care. Since I’ve been playing well, people are always going to talk. That’s the way it works, I guess.”
After heart-to-heart conversations with friends and family, Levin realized he had to clean up his act or else he wouldn’t be welcomed back into college golf or high-level amateur competitions.
“He knew everybody was fed up,” says his mother, Carlene Metzler. “He had to change.”
Among those who counseled him was his father, whose own potential on the PGA Tour during the early 1980s was never realized because of his volatility.
“Spencer grew up watching bad behavior on the course,” says Metzler, who was divorced from Don Levin when their son was 3 years old. Spencer lived with his mom until he was 16, and has since spent most of his time away from school at the home of his father, a teaching pro in Elk Grove, Calif., who has been his son’s only instructor.
“I remember when I was 8, 9, 10 (years old), watching him play,” Spencer says. “It was pretty bad, like another level bad. We’re not talking slamming your club, we’re talking really mad. I just thought that was normal. I did it, then I started to realize that not many people do that.”
At his parents’ urging, Levin attended Sacramento City Junior College last summer and fall to get his grades back into shape. Even after the UCLA fiasco, his talent was in demand. Levin enrolled at New Mexico in January, selecting the Lobos over San Francisco, Tulsa, Arizona and Fresno State.
“I had never met him before,” said New Mexico coach Glen Millican, recalling his introduction to Levin when he first visited the Albuquerque campus in November. “So I based everything solely on our impression of him and our interaction with him. It was a pretty clean slate when he came here. I wasn’t really worried about anything that allegedly had happened in the past.”
When Levin stepped on the New Mexico campus, a new man was born, and he appears to be making the most of another opportunity.
“I finally realized that all I have to do is go to class and do what I’m supposed to do,” Levin says. “I realized that this was my last chance. If I didn’t go to class here, nobody would ever want me again. I was lucky enough to have a second chance. I wanted to make sure I didn’t screw it up.”
Teammates Charlie Beljan, Jay Choi and Jay Reynolds set an example for Levin in the classroom. The trio stressed the importance of handling off-course activities so they don’t interfere with golf.
But it was Levin who set an example for his teammates on the course, quickly establishing himself as the Lobos’ top player. In his second round for New Mexico, Levin shot 63 at the Ping Arizona Intercollegiate and tied for third after a final-round 69. In his second tournament – the John Burns Intercollegiate – Levin shot 15 under over 54 holes and won. (UCLA’s Vincent sent Levin a congratulatory note.) In eight tournaments, Levin averaged 70.58 strokes per round, earned second team All-American honors and was 11th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings.
Levin’s play this summer has been even better. He shot 69-72 to qualify for the U.S. Open, where he tied for 13th and was the low amateur by eight shots over Casey Wittenberg. Levin’s ace at Shinnecock Hills’ 179-yard 17th hole late Thursday afternoon provided one of the week’s memorable moments. The hole-in-one, Levin’s first, came moments after a two-hour rain delay and was replayed numerous times on television.
“I like the way he plays,” said Lee Janzen, who was paired with Levin in Round 3 of the Open. “He’s confident and he gets up and he hits it. Reminds me of (Mark) Calcavecchia.”
In his last six events, only 14 players have beaten Levin – 12 professionals and two amateurs. His opening round of the Pacific Coast Amateur at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club began with seven consecutive 3s, including eagle at No. 6.
At 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, Levin is sneaky long off the tee, although the strength of his game is accuracy. He’s a fast player – maybe too fast sometimes, as evidenced by how little time he took during the four-putt at the Pacific Coast Amateur.
“My dad wants me to take more time on the greens,” Levin says. “He thinks I sometimes rush things. In terms of hitting the ball, I’ve always been quick.”
Trip Kuehne, one of the nation’s top amateurs, said Levin reminds him of PGA Tour player Chris Riley. “Drives the ball straight, knocks the ball on the green and putts pretty well,” Kuehne says. “He’s going to be a very nice player. He has a game that’s very suited to having a nice career on the PGA Tour.”
The TV time Levin received throughout the week at Shinnecock has made him more noticeable in public. Golf fans often chat him up in restaurants, and Levin – with no shortage of ego – says he hasn’t been hurting for attention from females.
“It’s cool,” he says nonchalantly.
Levin’s demeanor during his hot streak has been as impressive as his results. There has been little profanity and rarely a slammed club. Previously, it would take Levin three or four holes to calm down after a mishap; now he simply drags on his cigarette and prepares for the next shot as if nothing had happened.
Putnam, who won the Pacific Coast Amateur, has played with Levin frequently.
“He’s a little different,” Putnam says. “To the players he’s a nice guy. Certainly he’s cooled down in the last couple of years. Even if he yells one hole, the next hole he’ll just talk to you like he’s a normal guy. It doesn’t carry over to the next shot like it used to.”
During the final round of the Southern Amateur, Levin hit a hard fade that would have landed in the thick, right rough had the ball not caromed off a tree and bounced back into the fairway. Seconds after the ball left the clubface, Levin tossed his club in anger but he immediately apologized to playing partners Kuehne and Michael Sim, the eventual champion.
“He did a couple of things that I wouldn’t have done,” Kuehne said. “But he’s a competitor. Guys on the Tour do it all the time. It shows me that he cares. I have no problem with it.”
Levin’s signature look – visor, shirt collar turned up, trousers, cigarette in hand and an upright, confident strut – often is interpreted as arrogance.
“Yes, he has a certain cockiness about him, but in some ways we all do,” said recent UCLA graduate Steve Conway, a former teammate. “He just happens to be more outward about it. He believes he’s the best player in the world. And, who knows, maybe one day he will be. It wouldn’t surprise me.”
As for his pack-a-day nicotine habit, Levin offers no apologies. He’s been smoking since he was 15 – more on the course than off, he says – and has no plans to stop.
“Cut down a little bit, maybe,” he says.
There are skeptics who figure “once a rebel, always a rebel,” but Levin has demonstrated over the last eight months that he is maturing as a player and as a person. However bright his future may be, he knows that controlling his temper will forever be a work in progress.
“He still has his moments, believe me,” says Carlene Metzler. “Thankfully, they’re not nearly as often.”
– Dave Seanor, Rex Hoggard and Ron Balicki contributed