A few years ago, Spencer Levin might have crumbled. He was a young, self-destructive hothead whose volcanic temper had become his worst enemy. Even now, he's continuously fighting the inner battle, fending off urges to throw his clubs and curse himself when his boiling point is near.
Levin's evolving career took yet another step Saturday in the 46th Porter Cup at Niagara Falls Country Club. The 20-year-old from Elk Grove, Calif., played his worst round of the tournament, shooting a 4-over 74 that included bogeys on the final three holes, but he still played well enough to win.
"I didn't have my game today," Levin said. "I was really grinding hard. I was driving it good, wasn't hitting it good and wasn't putting good, but somehow I got it done. It's all that matters. It feels great."
Sometimes, the best golf is played when the score shows otherwise, when keeping it together and making good pars and bogeys is what makes a champion. Certainly, there were times when he wanted to launch his putter and toss his wedge. Instead, he remained calm and kept his emotions intact long enough for a one-stroke victory over Jeffrey Overton.
"It's what you gotta do to be a good player," Levin said. "That's what I'm learning. You can't act bad, and you can't get down on yourself or you won't be as good. I never thought 74 would win today. I honestly didn't think I was going to shoot that. I thought I was going to shoot under par again before the round, but it was weird. It wasn't a good day. I was lucky enough to have a four-shot lead."
Levin hit only four of 13 fairways and eight of 18 greens in regulation and still won the tournament at 7-under par. The battle started on the par-5 third hole, a birdie hole for the top amateurs in the country. He missed a 5-footer and settled for par while his partners, Overton and Nick Thompson, both made birdies.
Thompson shot 74 but wasn't a factor after 12 holes Saturday. Overton, who shot a 64 to get into contention Friday, finished with an even-par 70 but gave away too many opportunities Levin handed him. He was basically finished when he missed a 7-footer for par on No. 17 after Levin left a chip 20 feet short and made bogey. It gave Levin a two-shot lead going into the par-3 finishing hole.
"Looking back, you think that I could have easily done this or that," Overton said. "The main (mistake) was on 17. All I had to do was two-putt after Spencer missed his chip. Things didn't work out this time. I just have to work harder and come back next year."
Even the casual fans know Levin's story by now, how he's emerged as the best amateur in the country this summer. He finished 13th, the top amateur, in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. He was the favorite going into the Porter Cup, and he played to his expectations with three rounds in the 60s, including a first-round 64, and rode a safe cushion toward a major victory in amateur golf.
What many didn't know about Levin was his history of snapping -- sometimes, his clubs -- when his game goes awry. He was suspended from UCLA's golf team two years ago for his behavior. It was just as well. He was blowing off too many classes, hitting too many parties and failing at least two subjects before dropping out of school.
He took a step back from golf, hired a sports psychologist who helped him control himself and began dominating last season at the University of New Mexico. What became evident was he had always had the game. There were times he was tested Saturday, as his five-shot lead over Overton began to disintegrate. He took a step back, collected his thoughts and found his swing.
It was a grueling day. Overton inched closer with two birdies in his first three holes, watched Levin bogey Nos. 4 and 7, and was tied for the lead after making birdie and watching Levin turn the par-5 11th into an odyssey. Levin is usually straight off the tee but missed the fairway, hit an iron under a tree and settled for bogey.
Levin responded with a birdie on the par-3 12th hole when he hit an 8-iron to 6 feet to move to 9 under. He never lost the lead, but he hardly cruised to victory. On 13, he needed a flop shot over two 20-foot pine trees to save par. He made a 12-footer for birdie on 14 and struggled around the greens over his final three holes. He kept himself together just long enough.
"This is as big as anything," Levin said. "It's an honor just to be playing among these guys, and to beat this field feels great. I was probably more nervous on the last few holes today than I was at the Open, man, but I got it done. It feels good."