By Max Adler
I’ve been asked a lot lately, “What’s wrong with Jordan Spieth?” It’s curious when a guy who has flown so high above his peers at every level of the game since childhood drops back to Earth. Not since the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale has the 27-year-old won—or much contended. Greatness usually finds a way to rise again, but for now I can offer only insight into what’s right with the three-time major champ.
In December 2020, a short video made the rounds of Spieth giving an autistic 14-year-old, Joseph Maguire, a golf lesson via Zoom. The boy hitting balls in a simulator in New York City as Jordan looked on from Dallas spoke volumes even with the sound off. Their split-screens symbolised our current struggle to make emotional connections in a dislocated world. If you’ve found lockdown hard, imagine what it’s like for someone like Joseph, whose condition already makes social interaction difficult. With less access to his trusted network of teachers, coaches and friends, this past year’s plunge into isolation has been far deeper for him.
Even meeting his favourite golfer wasn’t easy. The edited video hides a long period of initial awkwardness. “It takes him a while to warm up in public,” says his dad, James. Driving that morning to Five Iron Golf in Manhattan, “I really didn’t know how it was going to go,” James says.
When Joseph was 2, his mother noticed he was walking with a limp. A misdiagnosis of cerebral palsy led to a harrowing crusade through hospitals, doctors’ offices and special schools looking for answers. For years, the only thing his parents knew for certain was that their son would have to work harder in life. Eyedrops to treat myopia unrelated to his autism made it impossible for Joseph to follow even the slowest pitches in baseball. He ran off the field in frustration and never returned.
“It was brutal for him,” James says. “The summer he was 7 or 8 I took him to play golf because it’s a non-moving ball. He wasn’t exactly loving or hating it, but golf lessons were expensive, and in the fall we let it drop. But when COVID hit this year, we decided to try again.”
James posted a swing video of his son on Instagram. He was proud of his boy for overcoming his disappointment that Tae Kwan Do and Boy Scouts were cancelled and finding a new way to be physically and socially active. The nonprofit Autism Speaks saw the post and recognized another opportunity to continue its campaign of committing a million acts of kindness in 2020. Autism Speaks called Golf Digest, whose playing editor happens to have a younger sister born with a neurological disease. Ellie Spieth is an inspiration for much of the charity work accomplished through the Jordan Spieth Family Foundation.
“I like your swing. It’s really on plane. But how does it feel?” Jordan asks.
“Good,” Joseph says softly.
“That’s what’s most important,” says Jordan, who clearly enjoys and is experienced in carrying conversations like this. “What’s your favourite club to hit?”
All golfers struggle to explain what they’re feeling. Recently, unprompted, Joseph explained autism to a group of peers and talked about his differences. He likes facts, data, music, British humour, and might happily spend an entire weekend reading encyclopedias. As with any new golfer, completing his first 18-hole round was an accomplishment.
“The single we were paired with remarked to me what a gentleman Joseph was,” James says. “It brings tears to my eyes, and to my father’s because we played golf together. Now I want to take him on golf trips just like we did.”
The star of a viral video, it’s quite possible Joseph will be recognized wherever they travel. He’ll handle it great. As he said after his lesson, “You think of these big celebrities as people you can’t talk to, but he was so cool and talked to me like we were both normal, regular people.”