UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. — 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 Spieth’s ego. His inner circle includes a former sixth-grade teacher, his ninth-grade science lab partner, a onetime 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 humor 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 two miles from Chambers Bay, site of this week’s United States Open. “All the people around Jordan let him have it. He certainly lets us have it.”
Spieth is not afraid to poke fun at himself in public, as he did in his victory speech at the Masters when he referred to his hairline. His fearless, aggressive play on the course and his modest, muted style off it have turned him into golf’s flavor of the month — not vanilla, but not rocky road, either. More like cinnamon spice.
If he wins this United States 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, adding, “They’re all dedicated to the same goals that I have.”
Entourages on the tour have grown to resemble pit crews, with players relying on swing coaches, mental coaches, conditioning coaches, chiropractors, spiritual guides, statistical wizards, managers, publicists and even yoga instructors to fine-tune their game and their brand.
Spieth has taken the modern celebrity script and turned it upside down. Rather than projecting himself onto the world’s smartphones, tablets and televisions to increase his star power, he is pursuing normalcy through a conspicuously low-wattage life.
Sports in Their Blood
Basketball, not golf, is at the heart of Spieth’s 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 N.B.A., but he recognized he had a better chance of flying to the moon. Being a grounded sort, he threw his energy into baseball. He pitched American Legion games, sometimes against Jamie Moyer, who went on to a 25-year career in the majors, and played baseball at Lehigh.
With a master’s degree in business, Shawn ran, then sold, a mobile app company. His latest venture is MVPIndex, which uses statistical analysis and social media conversations in pro sports to help companies maximize the return on their sponsorship investments and athletes, teams and leagues to maximize their marketing reach.
Chris played basketball at Moravian College, and once ranked among the top free-throw shooters in N.C.A.A. Division III. She was working as a computer engineer at Neiman Marcus when she gave birth to Jordan, who was named after his father’s favorite athlete, 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 soccer, basketball, baseball and football when they were young. Jordan was a promising left-handed pitcher, but he gave up baseball at 12.
“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.
The boys also took piano lessons. “Jordan loved it, Steven hated it,” Chris said, adding: “Jordan loved it because his instructor would put him in local competitions. If she didn’t let him compete at it, he would not have worked at it as much.”
The Spieths hewed to the philosophy that if every sibling is important, no sibling is important.
“Especially with the boys, because they were so close in age, we always wanted to make sure we supported them equally,” Chris said. “So we would divide and conquer.”
His parents’ presence at the Masters in April made Jordan’s victory all the sweeter because he seldom played in front of both of them in his junior golf days. He was usually accompanied by his father while his mother ferried his brother to basketball games or stayed home with his sister.
In his early teenage years, Jordan occasionally traveled to out-of-town tournaments on his own because his parents were occupied with his siblings. He shared a hotel room with another player or stayed with a host family, which hastened his self-sufficiency.
It also taught him responsibility. If he came home with a trophy but without his phone charger, his parents made him pay for a replacement with money he earned from mowing the lawn, taking out the trash and babysitting his sister.
“It worked out great,” Shawn said. “It allowed Jordan to be a really mature 19-year-old when he turned pro.”
If the family revolved around any child, it was Ellie, who was born with a neurological disorder that left her developmentally disabled. Her life is a happy dance interrupted by cloudbursts of frustrating setbacks like drawing with a pen that dries up or misplacing one of the keychain souvenirs Jordan brings back from his travels.
Once, several years ago, Chris said, Jordan looked at her during one of Ellie’s tearful fits and asked plaintively, “Can’t you put her in a timeout?”
His sister’s limitations, once tests of patience, have become a source of perspective. Jordan has said repeatedly that he is humbled daily by her struggles.
“The most significant influence, without a doubt, in all our lives is Ellie,” Shawn said.
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.
Mark Harrison, the executive director of the Northern Texas P.G.A., was also at the Byron Nelson to see Jordan. Through his charitable foundation, Spieth has become involved in Harrison’s efforts to attract more youngsters to golf.
On the Sunday of the Masters, Harrison said, his wife, Suzanne, watched Spieth’s post-victory interviews and told him, “He’s so grounded and so humble, if his mom or dad ever chose to write a book on how to raise a Jordan Spieth, not the player but the person, it would be a best seller.”
His Right-Hand Man
Greller, Spieth’s caddie, hears all the time that he has hit the jackpot. He went from earning a math and science teacher’s salary of $50,000 to collecting roughly 10 percent of Spieth’s winnings, which over the past eight months have amounted to more than $6 million.
But there is a lot more to Greller’s job than carrying Spieth’s bag and cashing checks.
“It’s not easy to caddie for Jordan,” Spieth’s mother said.
Spieth would agree. In his second PGA Tour start as a pro, at Pebble Beach in 2013, he came off the course after a round of 70 that he thought should have been better and said, “I couldn’t have caddied for myself today.”
He has grown to realize, at least intellectually, that he cannot hit every shot perfectly. He has matured a lot since his father caddied for him at the Texas State Amateur one year and threatened to quit midway through the round because he had grown tired of listening to Spieth’s griping about bad breaks and worse shots.
“I was trying to get him to look forward because if you don’t like the result of a shot, what’s done is done, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Shawn Spieth said. “But he kept complaining and whining. So finally we got to one tee and I told him, ‘If we’re not going to enjoy this, I’m happy to get outside the ropes.’”
He dropped the bag at his son’s feet and started to walk away. He did not get far. Spieth apologized, and father and son finished the week as a team.
Greller’s background made him perhaps uniquely qualified to work with Spieth. 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.
“When I was a teacher, I tried to create a climate where if the student did make a mistake, you created some learning moment from it,” Greller said. “It’s the same out here. We’re going to make mistakes every day. Jordan is such a cerebral person, he’s able to learn from them much quicker than just about any other person.”
Greller, who played golf for Northwestern College in Iowa before earning his master’s in teaching from George Fox University in Oregon, was teaching outside Seattle in 2006. A volunteer caddying stint at the United States Public Links, held near his Gig Harbor home, changed his life. Greller enjoyed the experience so much, he switched school districts so he could moonlight as a caddie at Chambers Bay.
When the United States Amateur was held at Chambers Bay in 2010, Greller got a job caddying for Justin Thomas, a Kentucky native whose close friendship with Spieth dates to when they were 14 and battling for junior titles. Greller arranged to caddie for Spieth at the 2011 Junior Amateur, in Bremerton, Wash.
Spieth was trying to become the first player since Woods to win multiple Junior Amateur titles. On the opening hole of their first practice round, Greller said, he was so nervous he gave Spieth the wrong yardages. They were playing the 10th, but Greller gave Spieth numbers for the first. Greller settled in, and Spieth won the title.
The next year, with Greller on his bag, Spieth finished as the low amateur at the United States Open. Before the Open, Greller attended the N.C.A.A. championship, where Spieth helped Texas to the title. He struck up a conversation with one of Spieth’s friends, Eric Leyendecker, who came away impressed. Leyendecker said he told Spieth he should consider hiring Greller when he turned pro.
Spieth and his parents needed no persuading. When Spieth dropped out of Texas six months later, his father offered Greller the job. Jennifer Wong stood outside Greller’s classroom at Narrows View Intermediate School the day he broke the news to his 28 students that he was leaving.
“They came out with tears streaming down their faces, they were so sad to be losing this great teacher,” said Wong, now the school principal.
She added: “He was such a constant and steady presence. He has a knack for meeting kids right where they are and knowing what they need. It’s a rare quality.”
As he did when he was a teacher, Greller has reached out to tour veterans for advice so he can improve his performance.
“You don’t see that a lot,” said Andy Sanders, who works for Jimmy Walker. “Out here it’s such a cliquey situation. The guys who are newer are hesitant to seek advice. They don’t want to give the other guys a reason to think they might not be up to snuff.”
For Greller, the only person whose opinion matters is Spieth, who has gotten better at communicating his needs. At the World Golf Championships event outside Miami in March, Spieth shot three rounds in the 70s and tied for 17th.
“I didn’t have my best week caddying,” Greller said. “I told my wife, ‘Remind me of how bad I feel as a caddie right now so I can appreciate the highs.’ ”
Spieth called Greller afterward and practiced his assertiveness by telling Greller to be more assertive. He told him not to hesitate to call him off shots in certain situations, especially on the weekends.
Spieth won his next tournament, captured the Masters a month later and has broken 70 in nine of his past 12 rounds.
“Mike’s my right-hand man,” Spieth said, adding, “He’s the only one I can trust out there on the course.”
An Entourage Takes Shape
Spieth had been written up in the local newspapers for his junior golf exploits by the time he enrolled as a ninth grader at Jesuit College Preparatory School, an all-boys school. Like all freshmen, though, he wore a name tag to complete his uniform of khaki pants, a dress shirt, tie, blazer, and black or brown shoes.
The school’s motto is “Men for Others,” and the name tags, a must for freshmen, are intended to drive home the point that in an environment where everyone is a servant, no one is special.
Spieth’s entourage took shape his freshman year when he forged friendships with Leyendecker, Blaine Simmons and Hays Myers. Spieth’s girlfriend, Annie Verret, attended Jesuit’s sister school, Ursuline Academy. They hung out in the same social circle for a long time before they started dating as seniors.
In 2013, when Spieth was playing in Woods’s event in Southern California, he was approached by Bruce Jenner, who struck up a conversation and offered to introduce Spieth to his daughter Kendall. Spieth walked away baffled. He had not kept up with the Kardashians and did not know who they were.
“Annie’s good for Jordan,” Spieth’s mother said. “He doesn’t need a celebrity girlfriend. He doesn’t want the attention.”
Spieth met Simmons on the first day of science class. At basketball games, Spieth became acquainted with Leyendecker, who served all four years as the team manager.
Spieth was the only serious golfer in the group, but he talked Leyendecker into trying out for the team as a senior, and Leyendecker took away from the experience one of his most cherished high school memories.
Leyendecker did not qualify for the high school regionals, but he showed up to cheer on his teammates and was pressed into action when one of the Jesuit players turned his ankle. After taking a few hurried swings on the practice range, he hit his first shot, and it was a beauty. Spieth and his other teammates, Leyendecker said, “started yelling like I had just won the tournament.”
“We always bring it back up because we sometimes joke about what would happen on the PGA Tour in a similar situation where I just had to show up and start caddying on the fly if for some reason Michael got hurt,” he added.
Spieth recently bought a five-bedroom house two miles from his parents’home. The 7,000-square-foot property has become his sanctuary, a place where he can watch the comedies he loves, like “Anchorman,” “The Hangover” or “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” without anybody watching him.
Whenever Spieth comes off the road, he invites his friends over and they grill out and uncork a bottle of wine. His dining table flips to become a poker table. They also entertain themselves with billiards and games of H-O-R-S-E on the mini basketball hoop in the living room.
“It seems that all Jordan does is find a pool table when he is on the road because he seems to become better each time he returns home,” Simmons said.
On the road, Spieth tries to rent homes near the tournament site whenever possible (and, yes, many of the properties have pool tables).
Since the Masters, Spieth’s world has gotten at once bigger and smaller. His friends understand why he is sometimes reluctant to leave home.
“Lately it’s been an adjustment going out in public,” Leyendecker said. “Now that he’s won the Masters a lot more people recognize him as soon as he walks out, and he’s too nice of a guy to not acknowledge people. So Blaine, Hays and I have to sometimes be the villains and pry him away.”
At tournaments, the role of the villain is played by Spieth’s manager, Jay Danzi, and Danzi’s associate Jordan Lewites. “They’re already trained at saying no,” Spieth said.
Most weeks, Spieth is accompanied only by Greller and Danzi. There are caddies on the tour with bigger traveling parties.
Spieth’s coach, Cameron McCormick, attends only a few tournaments a year. Verret completed work on her business degree at Texas Tech in December and is employed full time as an event coordinator for the First Tee of Greater Dallas. She has a limited number of vacation days to spend with Spieth on the road.
The Byron Nelson tournament was one of the rare weeks in which his gang was all there. Simmons and Leyendecker, both of whom graduated from college this year, stayed at Spieth’s house early in the week and graced his large galleries once the tournament started.
Between shots in the first round, they 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.”