July Cover StoryJune 7, 2015

Head of the Class

What do we like about Jordan Spieth? Listen to these stories

In an era when much is measured by "likes," the term seems inadequate for how the public has responded to Jordan Spieth. There have been many golfers who have captivated us right away: Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson and, of course, Tiger Woods. But even Arnold Palmer wasn't embraced so quickly and completely.

It goes beyond Spieth winning the Masters, or being America's own, 21 years old, fresh-faced, well-built, bright and polite. Or possessing the competitor's dangerous edge, a Right Stuff toughness that makes the historically inclined Ben Crenshaw think of Wyatt Earp.

All those things are essential, but they aren't at the center of Spieth's popularity. It's instructive that unlike all those who have been liked a lot, it appears that nobody doesn't like Spieth. Despite being labeled the Golden Child—a handle Woods didn't rebuff, but which Spieth does, if only because he knows it's made for the jealous to mock—true antipathy for the kid can't be found.

Like all game-changers, Spieth benefits from timing. Just as Palmer was a welcome change from the grim excellence of Ben Hogan, so is Spieth a respite from the distant reign of Woods.

"Tiger's time of domination was overall great for golf but difficult in terms of interaction with fans, sponsors and media," says Seth Waugh, former CEO of Deutsche Bank, sponsor of the Deutsche Bank Championship. "In his defense, as the biggest guy on the planet, he felt he needed a shield to protect himself from an invasive world. Everybody assumed that because he was winning everything, the model of focusing only on your game and not really engaging with people was necessary to be a champion. From a player's perspective, it was the perfect excuse not to do the harder stuff, like stick around to sign autographs. But then the financial crisis hit, and it became clear that the harder stuff was a big part of why a corporation would spend $10 million to put on a week of golf. When Tiger and the notion of universal entitlement simultaneously fell from grace, players realized another model might work better, not just for themselves, but for the game."

The leaders of the new/old way are Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Spieth, who blend accessibility, affability and performance. But even as McIlroy has changed the tone from the Woods era, it's Spieth who seems more disposed to asserting a transformational power like Palmer's. Which gets to Spieth's central allure: He's a giver. Certainly to his charitable foundation, but also—in what's so commonly considered a necessarily selfish sport—of himself. Even before Jordan's 14-year-old sister, Ellie, was born with a neurological disorder, his elders were examples of sacrifice and empathy. Spieth considers growing up in a home attuned to its youngest member's special needs a gift that will continue to inform his public life.

When thanked for his time at the end of interviews, Spieth has an endearing way of responding with an upbeat "Of course," but those words will get harder to say. And though his answers to questions have remained refreshingly expansive, post-Masters mania has given him an acute awareness that being asked to constantly talk about himself is a bottomless pit. "My speaking about humility is very difficult, because that wouldn't be humility," he said last year, and that impressively grasped paradox will get more complex.

So we're going to give Spieth a break and have others who have had telling moments with him do the talking.

ROGER MALTBIE NBC/Golf Channel On-Course Reporter

"At the Houston Open, he had a one-stroke lead, and I saw him on Sunday morning before the round and asked him if he'd been on an Easter-egg hunt. He said with a big smile, 'Yeah, and Ellie got every one of them.' And I thought, There's a kid who looks in the mirror and likes what he sees. Because that's important to feeling like you deserve to win. It matters under the gun."

JOE CHEMYCZ Web.com Tour Media Official

"In 2013, Jordan didn't advance in the second-stage [2012 PGA Tour] Q school and was out with no status. He played a couple of our tournaments and did pretty well. He needed another $5,000 to get temporary conditional membership, which would have given him unlimited sponsor exemptions at a time he was facing a lot of unknowns and no guarantees. It was a big deal. Our next tournament was in Santiago, Chile, but he had accepted a sponsor's exemption to the PGA Tour event in Puerto Rico for the same week. He knew what the smart play was: tell Puerto Rico you're sorry. But he looked me in the eye and said, 'Joe, I can't go to Chile. I gave [Puerto Rico] my word.' It was about the most mature, responsible thing I've seen a young guy do. He went to Puerto Rico and finished second, and in a couple of weeks he had his status on the PGA Tour. They say character is destiny."

DONALD TRUMP

"I first got to know Jordan in 2009, when he won his first USGA Junior, at Trump National Bedminster. He was 15. He's got the qualities a person needs for success: He loves what he does, he never gives up, he can handle pressure, and he has great knowledge of his subject. He's got great people skills, but that has nothing to do with winning—I know a lot of champions who don't have people skills. In fact, one of the reasons they're great champions is because they don't care about anybody else. But Jordan is very different, because he does care about people, and that fits into a nice way of being. Also, it opens the way for more money. Jordan is going to make a lot of money."

ERNIE ELS Co-Founder, Els For Autism

"Jordan is similar to my daughter, Samantha, who has a younger brother, Ben, who has severe autism. Jordan's mom and sister walked with us when we played the first two rounds at Houston. Ellie's so crazy about her brother, and you could see the intensity that he played with—he becomes a little warrior. I believe that, in time, Jordan's going to do a lot of big things in this country."

DAVID GANG CEO, Perfect Sense Digital; Board Member, Jordan Spieth Family

"Jordan's demeanor and style is so much older than he is. I'm older than his father, but when I speak to Jordan, I always feel like I'm speaking to a peer. At the same time, I can still see the young kid in his eyes, which he accesses when he speaks to my son, Matthew, who is 14 years old and a Down-syndrome kid. When we do events for Jordan's foundation, we bring in Special Olympic athletes and wounded veterans to play golf as part of a pro-am event. Jordan spends that extra time to talk to them, and he has the natural intellect and the innocence to engage with the oldest and the youngest. He's energized by the ability to raise money and contribute back to society, and he's going to be in a conversation with whomever is in the room."

BOB JULIUS Jordan's Maternal Grandfather

"Starting when he was about 8, Jordan would visit in the summer. There was the eighth hole at Olde Point [Golf & Country Club in Hampstead, N.C.], and we said, 'Hit from the other side of the water,' and he said, 'No, I want to go over,' and of course he did. Very determined, confident, just a steady ship all the time.

"He loved his grandmother, Ginny, who he called Mooma. She and I had six kids. She had a brain aneurysm when Chris [Jordan's mother] was 4 years old, and she had to use braces after that. The kids didn't think of her as handicapped. It was a hard thing; we did the best we could. She always laughed, she was my inspiration, and we stuck together until she passed in 2012. You know, 'for better or worse,' we believed in that. So I don't want to take any credit for anything, but if what the kids saw was a good example, then I'm glad.

"It's wonderful to see how the whole family is with Ellie. She sang happy birthday to me the other day, and it's so gratifying that she could do that and know the words, that she's come so far. So has Jordan. Thrilling, what he's done. You know, I had my knee replaced last July, and it wasn't healing, but when I got out of the car at the Masters, the pain was gone and hasn't come back. The doctor said it must have been adrenaline, and I must still be living on it."

ROSALIND FUNDERBURGH Founder And Director, Vanguard Preparatory School In Dallas

"It's not uncommon for siblings of special-needs children to feel left out or slighted or less parented, and that can cause dysfunction. And then you see other siblings who embrace it and become more mature. A lot depends on whether the parents educated the other siblings. Even before Ellie entered kindergarten here, Chris and Shawn did that with Jordan and his brother, Steven.

"What Jordan says about Ellie's effect on his life is valid. When you have to practice patience, generosity, kindness and accountability every day, all day long with a family member, that's a gift, even though it might not always feel like it. But it breeds a capacity to care and be thoughtful of others.

"When Jordan volunteered for a year with Ellie's class during his senior year in high school, he was a natural, which isn't common. Because new relationships with special-needs kids can often be uncomfortable both ways. But Jordan showed grace and kindness and real interest in the gentlest way. He would play board games with them, he would read with them, shoot baskets with them, and he connected. There were times I'd see Ellie suddenly get up from her chair and run over and throw her arms around him and say, 'Oh, Jordan, I just love you.' Which says it all."