-- Spencer Levin turned 20 on Tuesday, and among his birthday gifts was a new putter. Better yet, it was a Scotty Cameron tailored especially for the bantam amateur who had just qualified for his first U.S. Open.

Levin, oddly, was not particularly overjoyed. Turns out, the most recent addition to his bag came not from want but necessity when a thief made off with his old flatstick after tournament qualifying at Lake Merced Golf and Country Club outside San Francisco.

With the occasional exception, Levin has wielded his new club deftly over the first two days at Shinnecock Hills. After a 1-under 69 in the first round, Levin got to 2 under through 27 holes before closing with bogeys on three of the last four. His two-day score of 142 has him well behind leaders Phil Mickelson and Shigeki Maruyama; his poise, however, is well beyond that of an unknown who was never supposed to infiltrate this leader board.

"I just try to think of it as another tournament," said Levin, who at 5 feet 8, 135 pounds prefers creativity to physical might on a golf course. "I know obviously it's the U.S. Open. It's probably the biggest tournament in the world, but I just try to go out there and play like it's any other tournament. I try not to think of it as the U.S. Open and try to go out there and pretend I'm playing with my buddies or something, you know, and just go from there."

Part of Levin's peace of mind comes from the calming influence of his caddie Don, who doubles as his coach. Don also happens to be his father.

The elder Levin, who played on the PGA Tour for 21/2 years and in the 1983 U.S. Open, sheepishly admits he initially had steered his son toward baseball.

But during his junior year of high school, the younger Levin won the state golf championship while playing golf two days a week. His accomplishments on the baseball diamond were hardly comparable. So Don began instructing his son regularly and carrying his bag at local events.

"Whew, everyone's got to do it once, and then they can understand it. It's tough," Don said when asked if it has been a chore separating parenting from caddying. "I try to be really positive with him and just stick with the facts as far as the numbers, what we got yardage-wise, and you know, I let him make every decision unless he asks me."

That leeway exists off the golf course as well, and it led to some indiscretions from which Spencer says he has matured.

Most notable was last year after he lost in the final of the 36-hole California State Amateur at Pebble Beach. Immediately following, Levin threw a club and went into a tirade directed at his father. He later relieved himself on the course grounds, though Spencer since has said he did so far enough from spectators as not to cause offense.

Then there is the heavy smoking. It's part of the reason why one of his nicknames is Marlboro Man.

"I've been trying to quit, but I've been doing it for a while, so it's tough," said Levin, whose addiction to some degree has helped him better manage his anger issues.

"It's just fire. He's a fiery competitor," Don said. "He just expects to do well, and when he doesn't, he doesn't like it. It's that simple. That's why he was darn near leading the Open after 27 holes. He just expects to be there."

LEVIN