US Masters winner Jordan Spieth is kept grounded by the struggles of his younger sister
Published 14/04/2015 | 09:04
Jordan Spieth’s Masters coronation could not have been any more endearingly all-American than if scripted by the writers of Sweet Valley High. Mum, Dad and Grandpa were all blinking back tears besides the 18th green.
A cluster of his buddies from back home in Texas were ready to provide the high fives. And then, right on cue, girlfriend Annie Verret, the champion’s sweetheart from their schooldays at Jesuit College Prep in Dallas, stepped out from the throng for the kiss. If a Hollywood studio ever buys up the rights to adapt Spieth’s story, one suspects that it will turn any schmaltz from this moment into pure treacle.
And yet perhaps the most significant figure in the 21-year-old’s tale was the person not here. His younger sister Ellie, 15, born with a neurological disorder that leaves her with a mental age of five, was watching back at the family house. As ever, Spieth planned to take a souvenir trinket back from his travels for her.
“She’s probably just going to ask me to bring a present back,” he said. “She’s going to be happy that I won. She was out in Houston, where I was playing the week before, and after each round, she asked, ‘Jordan, did you win?’ And I had to say, ‘Not yet, no.’ But I can tell her I won now.”
Spieth always speaks with a manifest pride about Ellie, who spent a month in the neonatal intensive care unit and whose condition puts her on the autistic spectrum. Cameron McCormick, his swing coach, has observed how she “grounds Jordan, inspires him and makes it easy for him to detach”.
Indeed, what impressed most about the emphatic flourish with which he grasped a first Green Jacket was his serenity, his ability to screen out the slightest distraction.
The uppermost echelons of American golf can be an insular, egocentric place, but Spieth explained how Ellie had been crucial in establishing his measured perspective on his life and his game. “She’s the funniest member of our family,” he said. “I really love spending time with her.
“It is humbling to see her and her friends, and the struggles they go through each day, which we take for granted. It is their lack of patience or understanding, where it seems easy for us and not for them. But at the same time, they are the happiest people in the world.”
It fell to Bubba Watson, the dethroned champion, to slip the jacket over Spieth’s shoulders. Not that you would have known it, but the two of them attend Bible study classes together. For where Watson is zealously evangelical about his Christian faith, invoking his Lord and Saviour at every opportunity, Spieth is notably more reticent. Mercifully, in the entire course of a 30-minute press conference where he was asked repeatedly to dwell on the life-altering nature of this Masters triumph, he did not mention religion once.
Away from the course, he is the model of scrupulous understatement. Spieth chose not to throw his celebratory banquet at the Marriott, Sheraton, or any of Augusta’s other upper-crust hotels, but at the Chick-fil-A fast-food chain. It had, he admitted, been a favourite of his during schooldays.
Despite his panoply of endorsement contracts, he has also continued to drive the same Yukon truck that became his first set of wheels as a teenager.
Such was the preternatural poise of his victory speech to the galleries, it can be easy to overlook Spieth’s youth. He has a fast-receding hairline, and displays in every public statement an eerie level of confidence and conviction.
This precocity did not escape the President, when Spieth attended a White House reception last year. Barack Obama joked with reporters that it was most likely the first suit the young prodigy had bought, while adding that he was still too young to order a drink at the bar.
Spieth’s American admirers like to say that he has “moxie”. He possesses a natural energy and peppiness, as well as an uncanny savoir-faire about every challenge that he is likely to confront at a major championship. Like Lee Trevino, he grew up practising in the teeth of a capricious Texas wind, and appears to know precisely what balance of conservatism and courage to strike. The moment he steps on the first tee, he transforms, to borrow a line from Ben Crenshaw, fellow native of the Lone Star State, into Wyatt Earp.
Occasionally, he spoils the sheen. Spieth was widely criticised for how often he complained throughout his loss to Ernie Els in last year’s World Matchplay. Coming from a sport‑dominated background – father Shawn tried his hand as a baseball pitcher in Pennsylvania, while mother Chris was a basketball player – he understood that he had to make amends. “I’m embarrassed,” he said. “I played like the 13-year-old version of myself.”
One year on at Augusta, he produced a performance to redefine the essence of maturity.