Star of Spieth family is Ellie
DALLAS — At just 22 years old, Jordan Spieth is the No. 1 golfer, the sport’s highest earning player and an international celebrity.
Back home in Dallas, the real star of the Spieth family is his 15-year-old sister.
“We say all the time – our friends and his friends – we all live in Ellie’s world,” said Chris Spieth, their mother. “No matter what’s going on, it’s all about her. At least she thinks that.”
If there is source of Jordan Spieth’s humility and maturity, it’s his little sister. Ellie was born prematurely with a still undiagnosed neurological disorder that left her developmentally challenged. As a New York Times feature eloquently put it, Ellie’s life is “a happy dance interrupted by cloudbursts.”
Jordan simply calls her “the best thing that ever happened to our family.”
“She’s the most special part of our family,” he said. “She’s the funniest part of our family.”
When Spieth is commended for the grounding impact of his relationship with his sister, he responds much like Bobby Jones when he was lauded for calling a penalty on himself at the 1925 U.S. Open.
“You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank,” Jones famously said.
Spieth can’t comprehend what his life would be like without Ellie in it and how it would have impacted his personality.
“I don’t know what the alternative would be,” he said. “Would I be a brat? Are other people not normal people?
“With Ellie and how we grew up with her and her struggles and her triumphs, I think it just put life a little more in perspective than maybe it would have had we not experienced it. My parents are such great parents I don’t think it would have changed much, but we were able to see first hand what someone who struggles like that is like and it certainly took over our family. So maybe that’s what helps keep me ‘normal.’ I don’t know what the alternative is when everyone says maturity and grounded.”
Anyone who has a special needs child in their family or knows someone who does can relate. For all the challenges they might present, there is purity of spirt and heart that is magnetic and infectious. They inevitably shape the lives of everyone they touch.
“It teaches a lot of life lessons,” said Rosalind Funderburgh, the founder of the school for special needs kids where Ellie has attended since she was 7. “I think if you have a special needs child in your family, everybody has to take on a slightly different role. In the Spieth family you’ve got Steven and Jordan being typical children doing typical guy things. And then you have a child that takes lots of time and lots of emotional resources and everybody has to give to that. Jordan, certainly at a young age, stepped up to that.”
Ellie’s arrival when Jordan was only 8 presented immediate challenges. Being so premature, her lungs weren’t fully developed on top of everything else.
“The first three days were touch and go and we almost lost her two or three times,” her mother said.
Ellie spent months in the hospital before she was strong enough to go home.
“Jordan visited in baseball uniform; they had to wear masks,” Chris Spieth said.
Despite any hardships this new dynamic brought to the family, the Spieths never stopped parenting all of their children, dividing and conquering all the things that made up their typical days.
“They were so busy and we did not stop their lives for this,” Chris said of her boys. “I would go to hospital all day and pick them up from school and get them to practices and then my husband would take it from there. We’d have dinner together. Once the kids went to bed my husband would go to the hospital until midnight. So their activities didn’t come to a halt because of that. I don’t know if they knew the seriousness of all of it.”
Ellie didn’t speak until she was 4. Her mom left her job as a network engineer those first four years before taking on two part-time jobs to help pay for the kids’ schools. She worked at Jesuit College Prep School, where Jordan and Steven attended, for seven years.
For all the athletic gifts Jordan and Steven possessed, they were never treated as special by their parents.
“They didn’t favor Jordan ever,” said Eric Leyendecker, one of Jordan’s close-knit group of high school friends. “If anything, Ellie got all the special treatment because she’s just hilarious. They were just supportive the whole time.”
His senior year in high school, Jordan spent one day a week with a group of fellow Jesuit students volunteering at Ellie’s school. It deepened a bond that he cited in a touching tribute to his whole family in his yearbook.
“Ellie, I know every day presents its fair share of struggles, but the fight that you show everyday inspires everyone who knows you,” he wrote. “Spending each Wednesday with you this year has been a blessing and I love you.”
The experience left a lasting impression on Spieth, and certainly puts a bad day on the golf course into perspective.
“She is somebody who you can watch and then reflect on the big picture of life and understand that all these frustrations in a day, or in a round of golf, are really secondary,” he said. “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. 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 a part of it and helping support it.”
When Spieth was designated $150,000 for charity as a 2013 Presidents Cup participant, he established the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation. It’s grown to support three things that are nearest and dearest to him – junior golf, military families and special needs kids who will grow into special needs adults.
Ellie is the primary inspiration for that, and she was a hit at his annual Spieth Shootout in October, dancing with Rickie Fowler at the concert of his friend Jake Owen.
Some things haven't changed
Even though he’s moved into his own house, Ellie remains a central figure in Jordan’s life. She comes over in the summer to hang out in his pool. When Jordan calls home from tournaments, he still says “put Ellie on the phone.” When she’s on hand, he can pick her voice out from the crowd and seeks her out.
“She has no concept of what they do,” her mother said of the brothers’ athletic careers. “Steven plays basketball for the Brown Bears and she can wear her Brown sweatshirt; and Jordan plays golf and I have to be quiet, which is hard for her.
“She loves walking with (Jordan’s friends) and they know they can’t go right up to the ropes. He hears her above everybody else, but there are times when you don’t want to. (His father) keeps her behind the action.”
Jordan relishes the events when his sister attends, as she did at last year’s PGA Championship, Tour Championship and this season’s Tournament of Champions in Hawaii. It was Ellie who got the first hugs coming off the course after he finished second, first and first in those three events.
“Jordan wants her there, he truly does,” his mom said. “For the off times, when he comes off the course. He wants it to just be normal.”
Ellie keeps things normal. A favorite family tradition is going to the Presbyterian church on Christmas Eve. Both boys eagerly anticipate singing Silent Night so they can hear Ellie’s unique interpretation of the lyrics – “Round yon furniture, mother and child.”
“They wait for it and start giggling every year,” their mother said.
The sibling competition still persists during holidays and birthdays when Jordan and Steven try to win praise for a favored gift to their little sister. Having a fat bank account doesn’t always have its advantages over a cash-poor college junior.
For her birthday, both brothers took Ellie shopping. Jordan took her to a boutique toy store and let her pick out three things. Steven took her to a dollar store and said she could pick out five things.
“So the joke in the family is which brother gave you the best gifts?” Chris said. “She said Steven did because she got five things.”
That played out one Christmas as well. Steven got home from college in time to go shopping for his sister at Target on Christmas Eve. He knew he’d win the best-gift contest with a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper. This was before Spieth signed a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola.
“She opened it Christmas and every Dr. Pepper was gone by the end of the day,” her mom said. “It’s instant gratification always for her. That’s the sole reason we don’t buy soda in our house.”
Ellie talks to Siri and ordered a Dr. Pepper T-shirt for herself and a Reese’s peanut butter cup T-shirt for Jordan to get for Christmas, because she heard that their mom used to give him the candy treat when he was little if he made birdie.
Winning majors and being the best golfer in the world isn’t going to change Jordan’s existence in Ellie’s world.
“It’s really a joy to see them together,” Funderburgh said. “Her sweet little face lights up when Jordan comes in the door. It’s two very loving and very connected siblings. Yes, Ellie has special needs, and no, Jordan does not, but it’s a very relaxed relationship that flows both ways. It’s not Jordan caretaking. It’s like any two siblings who adore each other.”