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Right Opinion

A Modern Golfer With Old School Class

Arnold Ahlert · Apr. 14, 2015

It’s a rare moment in modern-day America to encounter a person with genuine class. It’s even rarer when that person is all of 21 years old. Throw in the fact that he’s a professional athlete and we have reached a trifecta of improbability. Nonetheless it is worth taking time off from chronicling the usual assortment of morally jaded creeps, crooks, narcissists and egomaniacs to acquaint non-golfing Americans with a young man named Jordan Spieth. 

Last weekend, Spieth realized a goal he had set for himself at the age of 14. “My ultimate goal when I came here, Cam (golf instructor Cameron McCormick) asked me and I said that I want to win The Masters,” Spieth revealed during an interview in 2008. On Sunday he did just that, capturing the title in the first of golf’s four annual Majors (the U.S Open, the British Open and the PGA are the other three) that define the difference between a good golfing career and a great one. Yet winning the Masters, the only Major held at the same Augusta National Golf Club every year, is a victory most golfers see as the game’s ultimate triumph. 

Spieth not only won it, but maintained a lead from round one, straight through round four that included shooting 64 for the lowest opening round at the Masters in 19 years. He also set scoring records for the 36 and 54 hole marks, fueled by a record-setting 28 birdies. He also became the first player in tournament history to reach 19 under before bogeying his last hole to tie Tiger Woods’ record for the lowest total score. A wire-to-wire win under the most intense pressure a golfer faces all year is impressive stuff. 

But that’s not what makes Spieth impressive. What makes him impressive is the way he has handled himself, with a mixture of genuine humbleness and maturity that not only sets him apart from other people his age, but from most people in general. As ESPN columnist Gene Wojciechowski explains, "Spieth is the only young American golfer to move from the pipeline to Butler Cabin for the green jacket presentation. He’s the only one to thank the food and beverage people at Augusta National during the awards ceremony.“ Spieth also thanked his caddie Michael Greller, a former math teacher who most rising stars would have likely abandoned for a seasoned pro as their careers blossomed. Spieth did not, and for anyone watching the tournament, their symbiotic relationship was evident.

So where does his down-to-earth nature come from? Spieth grew up in Dallas in a middle-class neighborhood. His father Shawn played baseball at Lehigh University, worked for Alcoa, got an MBA degree, and is now involved with a social media startup operation. His mother, Chris, was also an athlete, playing basketball for Moravian College. On the work front, she was a computer engineer employed at Neiman Marcus for 17 years. Spieth also has a brother, Steven, who plays basketball at Brown University.

Yet it is sister Ellie, 14, born with a neurological condition related to autism, who keeps Spieth grounded. "Ellie certainly is the best thing that’s happened in our family,” he told Ohio.com last July. “It helps put things in perspective that I’m lucky to play on tour and to compete with these guys. It’s been a dream come true. I definitely attribute a lot of that to her.”

His sister’s condition has engendered a relationship with golfing legend Ernie Els, whose son Ben is also autistic. In 2009 Els set up the Els for Austism Foundation. Spieth wants the Jordan Spieth Charitable Fund, set up to help special needs children, as well as military families and junior golfers, to promote a similar awareness to the public.

Els provided some insight on their relationship. “I’ve played with him quite a few times and we’ve spoken about his family and how they have coped with their situation,” Els explained. “We’ve shared some really funny kind of stories because autistic kids are so special, and the way they handle life is quite special. If I look at my own daughter, Samantha, growing up with a brother that’s autistic, they look at life a little bit differently. They see how special and how honest and how loving these kids are. They do grow up with a little different perspective to life. I think there’s maybe a bit more appreciation,” he added.

It is precisely that sense of appreciation that sets Spieth apart. And it might just prevent him from acquiring what might be described as the Majors “curse.” The curse applies to golfers who win one Major, followed by a fade into relative obscurity. There is little doubt the vagaries of the game itself contribute to that reality, but that’s only part of the equation. Many Major winners have offered insight into the enormous pressure that inevitably accompanies an important victory, including the plethora of non-golf commitments that must be fulfilled as a result. 

As if on cue, golf.com has already noted that Spieth will see a tripling of his off-course income as a result of this victory. “Call him the $25 million man — at the very least,” they state. "It’s almost impossible not to pick up a deal or two after winning a major,“ says Mac Barnhart of Crown Sports LLC. "Companies know that the major winners are going to be on TV a lot [the next year] no matter what they shoot. If your timing is right you can really cash in big time.”

Spieth will undoubtedly cash in big time, but one suspects it won’t go to his head. In fact, he made $12.3 million last year, of which around $6 million came from off-course business deals. Thus he’s already wealthy. Perhaps his newfound higher profile, taking him from golf celebrity to celebrity in general, may alter his outlook somewhat, but to date he’s maintained a steady relationship with his high school sweetheart, Annie Verret. He has also purchased a $2.3 million home in Dallas. Maybe there’s a walk on the wild side in his future, but for now it doesn’t seem apparent. 

His mother offers some additional insight into his character. “Jordan wouldn’t be where he’s at today if he didn’t grow up with Ellie,” she told ESPN. “Ellie always thought her brothers won at everything, so there’s no way they were allowed to be down around her. No way. Jordan realizes this isn’t real life at the Masters. Trying to sit around and have dinner when his sister doesn’t want to eat when everybody else is eating and has a fit, that’s real life.”

Spieth’s real life is stretched out before him. And while the cynic in me believes there is a certain amount of mindless lionization of athletes that attends every great achievement — and that a certain amount of it inevitably goes to an athlete’s head — my gut tells me it’s different this time. Maybe that feeling is nothing more than a yearning for a genuinely solid citizen in a nation seemingly determined to celebrate the lowest common denominator. One that makes such people exceedingly rare. It’s certainly much easier to go with the (amoral) flow than stand against it, and there is little doubt a boatload of temptations is heading Spieth’s way. 

But I’m betting none of the pressure that attends those temptations will be greater than the six-foot putt he drained on the 16th hole to seal the match. “At that point, I was with my putter,” Spieth revealed. “Didn’t care what it looked like. Didn’t care my posture. Didn’t care the mechanics. It was all feel-based. I was seeing the line. I was seeing the arc of the putt.”

Something tells me this kid sees plenty. And not just on the golf course.

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