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Golf's 'Golden Child' Spieth kept humble by family and friends

Golfer Jordan Spieth (right) with his caddie Michael Greller, who used to be a school teacher. The rest of Spieth's entourage is made up of ordinary folk such as his ninth-grade science-lab partner.
Golfer Jordan Spieth (right) with his caddie Michael Greller, who used to be a school teacher. The rest of Spieth's entourage is made up of ordinary folk such as his ninth-grade science-lab partner.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

UNIVERSITY PLACE - Well before Jordan Spieth was fitted for a Masters green jacket in April, he acquired a nickname from a few PGA Tour players, who took one look at his pinchable face, impeccable manners and bulletproof game and anointed him the Golden Child.

His other peer group, consisting of friends he grew up with in Dallas, gave him a different nickname. Taking note that he left the University of Texas midway through his sophomore year to try his luck as a professional golfer, his childhood clique took to calling him the College Dropout.

Spieth loved that one. Flattery will get you nowhere with Spieth, who values facetiousness. The common thread running through his hodgepodge of an entourage is the needle, liberally applied to prick his ego.

BACK THEN...

In team sports, he'd get so upset if somebody else did something wrong. I'd have to remind him that nobody's perfect.

- Chris Spieth, Jordan Spieth's mum, on his intensity as a kid

...AND NOW

Having a sense of humour about things on and off the course helps keep things in perspective.

- Michael Greller, Spieth's caddie

His inner circle includes a former sixth-grade teacher, his ninth-grade science-lab partner, a one-time high school basketball team manager, a junior golf nemesis from Kentucky and his sister, who has special needs.

When they take aim, nothing is out of bounds: his receding hairline, a PGA Tour commercial in which he loses to a fan in checkers, a failed driver's test.

"Having a sense of humour about things on and off the course helps keep things in perspective," said Spieth's caddie, Michael Greller, a former teacher who worked at a school roughly 3.2km from Chambers Bay, site of this week's US Open. "All the people around Jordan let him have it. He certainly lets us have it."

If he wins this US Open, Spieth, 21, will be the first man since Tiger Woods in 2002 to complete the first two legs of the Grand Slam. Woods was groomed from a young age to be a champion golfer. You have to look harder to see destiny's fingerprints on Spieth.

There are the parents who never put him on a pedestal, the swing coach whom he was introduced to at age 12 and has worked with since, the girlfriend he has dated since he was 17 and the best friends he has known longer, and the educator-turned-caddie.

"The most important thing is probably my family and our team," Spieth said.

Basketball, not golf, is at the heart of his story. His parents, Shawn and Chris, grew up in the same small town in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

They started out as friends and fellow basketball gym rats before becoming sweethearts at Saucon Valley High School.

Shawn dreamed of playing in the National Basketball Association, but subsequently threw his energy into baseball. He pitched American Legion games. Chris played basketball at Moravian College, and once ranked among the top free-throw shooters in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. She was a computer engineer when she gave birth to Jordan, who was named after his father's favourite athlete, NBA legend Michael Jordan.

The Spieths have two other children: Steven, a rising junior on the basketball team at Brown, and Ellie, 14. The boys, who are 18 months apart, played football, basketball, baseball and American football when they were young.

"In team sports, he'd get so upset if somebody else did something wrong," Chris said, adding, "I'd have to remind him that nobody's perfect."

Jordan acquired a plastic driver and toy putter when he was a toddler. He loved to hit with them so much his mother used them as incentives for potty training.

The child who could not stand imperfection in himself or others grew into an adolescent with eyes only for golf, the most maddeningly imperfect sport. "I enjoy working at something that is impossible to conquer," Jordan said.

If the family revolves around any child, it is Ellie, who was born with a neurological disorder that left her developmentally disabled. Last month, Jordan was in the middle of a round at the Byron Nelson, his hometown tournament, when Ellie, who was standing against the gallery ropes with their mother, screamed his name.

Jordan's mask of concentration dropped at the sound of her voice, and he trotted over and gave her a hug before hitting his next shot.

Greller hears all the time that he has hit the jackpot. He went from earning a teacher's annual salary of US$50,000 (S$66,700) to collecting roughly 10 per cent of Spieth's winnings, which over the past eight months have amounted to over US$6 million.

His background, however, made him uniquely qualified to work with the golfer. It turns out that sixth-graders in the classroom are not so different from Spieth on the course. Their emotions are up and down, and they are gaining an awareness of their limitations and their potential.

His entourage took shape in his freshman year at Jesuit College Preparatory School when he forged friendships with Eric Leyendecker, Blaine Simmons and Hays Myers. Spieth's girlfriend, Annie Verret, attended Jesuit's sister school, Ursuline Academy.

At tournaments, the role of the villain is played by Spieth's manager, Jay Danzi, and Danzi's associate Jordan Lewites, particularly since a lot more people recognise Spieth after the Masters. "They're trained at saying no," he said.

Most weeks, he is accompanied only by Greller and Danzi. The Byron Nelson tournament was one of the rare weeks in which his gang was all there. Between shots in the first round, Simmons and Leyendecker wondered if maybe they ought to stop giving Spieth grief about not finishing college.

After all, noted Leyendecker: "He got his Masters before we got our Bachelor's."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Golf's 'Golden Child' Spieth kept humble by family and friends'. Print Edition | Subscribe