ORLANDO, Fla. – Spencer Levin is all grown up.
The one-time bad boy of amateur golf has softened now that he’s 26 years old. His temperament has settled, his attitude has improved immensely and he now listens intently to everything his swing coach/father tells him. He’s even switched to a belly putter that, more than anything else, has helped him convert more key putts from outside 12 feet.
It’s an oxymoron of sorts but Levin is best described as a new-school throwback. Whatever the moniker, he is one shot back of the lead halfway through the Arnold Palmer Invitational, shooting 66-70 for an 8-under-par 136 total.
“I scored a lot better than I played today,” Levin said of his 70 that ended with a birdie from 22 feet on the 18th hole. “I didn’t drive it very good. But all in all, I’m happy with that for sure.”
Levin grew up in California and burst onto the amateur scene some eight years ago when he opted for the glitz and glamor of college life at UCLA. That stint didn’t work well because, as a student-athlete, Levin was more interested in being an athlete than he was a student. So he and Bruins’ coach O.d. Vincent decided it was best to part ways and Levin transferred to the University of New Mexico.
The first major national exposure for Levin came in, well, his first major. Playing in the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Levin tied for 13th and was low amateur of the championship. He converted a ticklish 4-footer for par on the last hole that sealed a top-15 finish, which earned him a spot in the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. The highlight of the week came late Thursday following a weather delay when he aced the par-3 17th hole. That hole-in-one was aired repeatedly over the next few days and put Levin on the golf map.
That same summer Levin won the California State Amateur at Pebble Beach (he was runner-up there in 2003), the Porter Cup and the Scratch Players Championship – all three amateur events of major prestige.
With all the amateur success, those in the know always believed that Levin’s attitude was what kept him from being more successful. He would often rub people the wrong way with the way he chain-smoked cigarettes and blew ashes and butts all over a golf course. His language was rarely rated PG and his swagger and popped shirt collar always gave off the impression that he was arrogant.
All has not changed. He still smokes and, at 5-9, 155 pounds, has that unmistakable swagger. But he’s mellowed a bit now that he’s in his third full year on the PGA Tour.
“I still get frustrated, but I’m able to keep it together better,” Levin said Friday. “I’m getting older and more mature. That must be it.”
Levin has grown up and so has his game. He has recorded four top-15 finishes in his last five starts and has only missed one cut this year. His biggest chance at his first PGA Tour victory came a month ago when he lost a playoff to Johnson Wagner at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. Still, he did shoot a final-round 65 to get into that playoff.
“Right after that I was disappointed,” Levin said. “But I earned enough money to secure my card for next year and overall it gave me a lot of confidence.”
Five years ago, a disappointment like that could’ve evoked different emotions. Now, he used that to play without pressure and continue to perform at a high level. The following week at the Honda Classic Levin opened with at 67 in howling wind and ended the week in a tie for 14th place.
This week has been more of the same. The opening-round 66 here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational was considered by several of his fellow pros one of the best three rounds of this year. The 30 mph winds produced more scores in the 80s than it did scores in the 60s.
The second-round 70 also was impressive, but for different reasons. Levin opened with two birdies in his first six holes and held a 7-shot lead on the rest of the field through eight holes. But he started to leak oil some on the closing stretch when others – Steve Marino, Charles Howell, Tiger Woods – started to heat up. Levin stopped the bleeding on 18 when he drained the 22-footer for birdie.
“His putting is just unbelievable,” said Marino, Levin’s good friend who is only three shoots off the lead. “He made almost everything he looked at and just played awesome.
“Today, on the front nine, he made a bunch of long putts for birdies and save some putts. He missed a couple on the back but overall very impressive. I’ve never really seen anyone putt like that for two days.”
It’s the next two days that will test Levin’s moxie. It’s not a dud leaderboard here at Arnie’s Place. Marino and Rickie Fowler are hungry for their first Tour victory, Woods is looking to continue his domination of Bay Hill while finding form before The Masters and Howell posted a second-round 65 to get into the mix.
“If you’re making a bunch of birdies out here, there is somebody else who is going to make a bunch of birdies,” Levin said. “If you think you’re playing great, somebody else is going to be playing great. That just shows you the competition is so packed that one shot is always huge at the end of the week.”
It took Levin awhile to get into this position. It’s one that he’s capable of handling now that he’s all grown up.
Follow Jay Coffin on Twitter @JayCoffin