London – It all comes down to Ellie.
Any conversation about the incredibly centred new golf Masters champion Jordan Spieth, his calm, his strength, his wonderful ability to absorb the pressure of leading a major golf tournament wire-to-wire, will eventually route back to his 14-year-old sister.
Ellie Spieth does not know that the Masters is more important than any other tournament her brother has played. She does not understand the concept of professional golf, either.
She knows that Jordan plays a game, and the aim is to win, and if he wins it makes him happy and the family happy. So that makes her happy, too. And then she might ask if he is bringing her a present home. Not anything as hokey as a green jacket, either, because that really isn’t of interest.
Ellie has a neurological disorder linked to severe autism. She needs constant care and spent the duration of the Masters championship staying with family friends who are also counsellors and teachers at her special needs school. Yet Spieth acknowledges Ellie as having an influence on his life as great as any coach.
Anyone spending time around him at Augusta this week says he is different to other 21-year-olds.
Ellie is what sets him apart.
Yet, equally, not alone in the world of elite sport. Lewis Hamilton’s half-brother Nicolas has cerebral palsy and is the first disabled driver to compete in the British Touring Car Championship. The pair are very close.
‘It’s quite a cool feeling to watch someone grow up, to see the difficulties and troubles he’s had, the experience he’s had,’ says Hamilton. ‘To go through it with him and see how he pulls out of it, I think he’s just an amazing lad. I love to take my brother down to the track. He likes a challenge but he’s had a lot steeper challenges, too.’
It is no coincidence, then, this bond between high-achieving athletes and disabled siblings.
Hamilton competes in a sport that encapsulates the notion of an international jet-set, yet possesses the same sense of grounding within that is found in Spieth.
It comes from a home environment that reinforces a bigger picture; one that served as a constant reminder of good fortune and inspired both men to make the most of their advantages.
Spieth certainly wouldn’t say he is living his life for Ellie – she has her own life and coping with it is every bit as challenging as keeping Phil Mickelson at bay – but he may be driven by the thought that not every human being on the planet is allowed his or her destiny. It then becomes a duty to take that test on.
If Jordan is away at a tournament, each day when they speak, Ellie asks if he has won.
Spieth says their conversation often evolves as ‘not yet, not yet, not yet and then, no.’ He was looking forward to telling her yes, at last, after Augusta. One imagines she is going to be hearing that word a lot more.
After Alex Bilodeau of Canada won a gold medal at the Sochi Olympic Games in the freestyle skiing moguls, he immediately paid tribute to his brother Frederic, who has cerebral palsy. ‘He’s my everyday inspiration,’ he said. ‘Sometimes I wake up in the morning and it’s rainy and I don’t want to train or go out and ski. I look at my brother and if he had that chance he would go, he would grab it.
‘With the motivation he has, if he could be a normal person like I have the opportunity to be, he would be three times Olympic champion. No doubt.’
It wasn’t just Spieth’s golf that was phenomenal in Augusta. His manner for such a young player impressed everybody. Course management wise beyond his years was matched by a polite, measured presence in public engagements.
His talk of ‘Mr Crenshaw’, the gentle fun he poked at himself, the way - when asked to talk through his final round - he moved in painstaking detail through every shot, revealing his intentions and emotions as well as the bald technical detail, was almost old-fashioned in its helpfulness.
Even as Justin Rose and Mickelson closed on that last day, Spieth was unruffled. That nature comes, his family explained, from leading a domestic life that cannot promote him as the star of the show, no matter his achievements.
His father Shawn took him to one side before he teed off on Sunday. ‘The Masters is the greatest game,’ he told him. ‘But it’s still a game.’
His mother, Chris, was more specific. ‘Jordan wouldn’t be where he’s at today if he didn’t grow up with Ellie,’ she said. ‘Jordan realises the Masters isn’t real life. 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.’
Actually, it’s not, which is what really makes Spieth different. Most families can dine together without such an intense level of involvement and interaction each evening, and without mundane events becoming a daily lesson in perspective, patience and understanding.
Chris Spieth played basketball for Moravian College and her other son, Steven, now starts as a point guard for Brown. ‘Ellie always thought her brothers won at everything,’ she added. ‘So there was no way they were allowed to be down around her. No way.’
During the Paralympic Games in London in 2012, The Times ran a headline: ‘Suddenly, it’s cool to be disabled.’ The writer is tetraplegic and her statement was well-made: in context. Obviously, nuance is harder to achieve in a staccato banner and stripped of explanation it looked a glib statement.
There is nothing cool about being born with the disadvantages Ellie Spieth faces. Could she make a choice, she would be just like her brothers. So this isn’t like that.
The lives of the Spieth family, the Hamiltons and Bilodeaus haven’t been made better, or cooler, by misfortune. It is more that remarkable individuals within the family unit have drawn strength from that adversity and somehow turned it into a motivational positive.
Jordan Spieth sees that Ellie is never defeated by her disadvantage and he turns that to his advantage, too. In doing so, he makes her struggle ever nobler; and his achievement.
She’s not heavy. She’s his sister.