One of my early encounters with Jordan Spieth was in an elevator in Columbus, Ohio during the 2013 President’s Cup. He had been chosen as a Captain’s pick by Fred Couples and it was Spieth’s first experience with international team golf competition. I introduced myself and offered some long-term encouragement.
“I just want you to know that all of us at the PGA of America, and in particular, Tom Watson were really pleased to see you get named to this team. Watson really wants you on next year’s Ryder Cup team,” I said.
“Mr. Bishop, that is my main goal for next year- to make that Ryder Cup team,” said Spieth.
Mr. Bishop? Not too many 20-year olds would have even remembered a name after a brief introduction. It was very clear to me during that 30-second encounter that there was something very special about this kid.
I watched him during the week and at times he was clearly nervous and struggled with the magnitude of the moment. He was strategically paired early in that President’s Cup with veteran Steve Stricker. A week after the U.S. won the competition I had a chance to talk with Stricker.
“I really enjoyed playing with Jordan. He is a special talent. It was kind of weird playing with a guy as a partner who is young enough to be my son,” quipped Stricker. “But, hey, Tom Watson is old enough to be his grandpa if Jordan makes the Ryder Cup!”
Spieth did make that 2014 Ryder Cup team and despite all of the scrutiny of Watson’s inability to relate to his younger players that was definitely not the case with Spieth who was 2-2 at Gleneagles. Spieth and his playing partner, Patrick Reed, became stalwarts in the first couple of days at that Ryder Cup.
Stricker’s observation of Watson being old enough to be Spieth’s grandfather was prophetic in many ways. During that week at Gleneagles, Spieth listened to Watson, sought his counsel and spring boarded it to a successful Ryder Cup debut. It was definitely like watching a grandson proudly glean history and insight from a grandfather.
But that would be Jordan Spieth who is definitely a product of a solid upbringing by his mom and dad, Chris and Shawn. Both parents were athletes in their own right. Chris was a women’s college basketball player at Moravian College while Shawn was a former baseball player at Lehigh. They created a highly grounded family environment for Jordan and his brother, Steven, who starts on the Brown basketball team- as well as 14-year old Ellie, the youngest sibling who has a neurological disorder that has led to autism.
In an ESPN.com story on the Friday of The Masters, Chris Spieth wanted people to know that Ellie has shaped her brother more than any swing coach ever could.
“Jordan wouldn’t be where he’s at today if he didn’t grow up with Ellie. She always thought that her brothers won at everything,” said Chris. “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.”
“She is the funniest member of our family,” Jordan said. “I really love when she’s able to be out there. Love spending time with her. It’s humbling to see her and her friends and the struggles they go through each day that we take for granted- their kind of lack of patience or understanding, where it seems easy for us and it’s not for them.
“But, at the same time, they are the happiest people in the world, and when I say they, I speak to special-needs kids. And my experience with her and in her class and with her friends, it’s fantastic. I love being part of it and helping support it.”
Spieth’s rise to professional golf fame has come quickly. He left college after his freshman year at Texas when the Longhorns won a National Championship. In 2010, at the age of 16, Spieth was a member of the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team. Little did any of us know at the time what was ahead in the next five years for this kid from who would win three times on the PGA Tour including a Masters and as well as the Australian Open- plus a spot on the President’s Cup and the Ryder Cup.
In the days that followed the Masters, Spieth went on a whirlwind tour which included numerous media stops in New York City. He had previously committed to play the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head. Everybody would have understood if Spieth had backed out of that the week after his win at Augusta. In the first round he shot 74 and appeared fatigued. On Friday he rebounded with a 62 and wound up finishing 10th. He played in this tournament because it had given him a sponsor’s exemption earlier in his career when he needed it.
On that Sunday night, Spieth boarded a jet and flew to Dallas to help present the Female Vocalist of the Year Award at the American Country Music Awards. He wore his green jacket onto the stage in front of a standing ovation from his hometown fans. Spieth looked awkward in the moment, but if you know Jordan it was his humility shining through.
Miranda Lambert won the award and never so much as acknowledged Spieth during the presentation. She probably wondered who the usher in the green jacket was. It was a telling moment and it put golf celebrity status into proper perspective.
But, it was another defining moment in the great personal life of Jordan Spieth. Golf fans will have decades to enjoy the evolution of the next American superstar. My prediction is that it will be a glorious ride not marred by any off-course controversies. Speith is the stuff that real heroes are made of.