Jordan Spieth’s First Golf Coach Does the Right Thing from the Links to Ukraine
By Patti Putnicki
At first glance, you think you know Joey Anders’ story. You see the effortless golf swing, the beaming smile and the credentials—ranging from being one of Jordan Spieth’s first teachers to being named one of the 50 Top U.S. Kids Instructors in North America—and it’s easy to be a little jealous. Until you know the whole story.
The truth is, Joey Anders, PGA Class A pro and lead teaching professional at Dallas-based Brookhaven Country Club, got to where he is today with guts, dedication and a dogged determination to “do the right thing”—whether he’s coaching a budding tour phenom or living his life.
This is not the story of a little boy who grew up wanting to be golf pro. Quite the opposite. Though naturally gifted in sports, Anders never took up the game of golf until he was in college. In fact, until he turned pro, he only had a couple of lessons himself.
“I loved all sports, but around the fifth or sixth grade, I started focusing on basketball, because, even then, I knew that was my best shot at getting into college,” Anders said. “I knew that golf existed—my grandfather played—but no adult ever took me to a golf course or showed me the basics. I knew you had to get the ball in the hole, but that was about it.”
He got a basketball scholarship to a junior college in Colorado. But, in his freshman year, he blew his knee out.
“I came back to Texas to get my ACL fixed in the summer, and stayed here for a year of rehab,” Anders said. “I had to do something while I was here, so I got a job at a driving range picking up balls to earn some extra money before I went back to college. On my breaks, I’d borrow some clubs and start hitting balls—and I liked it. My wife, Cecilie (his girlfriend at the time) bought me a set of golf clubs because she thought I might like to learn to play. I took a lesson to find out how to hold the club and the technicalities of the swing. That was the first of my two real golf lessons.”
Then, he went back to Colorado to play his second year of basketball.
“It didn’t take long to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball anymore—at least not competitively,” Anders said. “So I joined the golf team, which wasn’t even at varsity level. It was more of a club.”
His initial results were unimpressive—shooting in the nineties during tournament play.
“I actually think I liked golf so much because it wasn’t easy; it pushed me to try harder, ” Anders said. “The strange thing is, the first day after the season ended, I played my first round of social golf and shot in the seventies. I think that was the day that I told Cecilie that I wanted to be a golf professional. Luckily, she didn’t laugh at me. She supported me.”
At that moment, his career path changed. Anders set his sites on the prestigious golf program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. The problem was, he had to have a four handicap or better to get in—a goal he realized in just one year. He earned his degree, graduated and set out to be a touring pro.
From Tour to Teaching Pro—and the Jordan Spieth Connection
“I tried out for the Canadian Tour, but didn’t like the travel. I learned early on that, as much as I like golf, I’m a family guy. I had just gotten married and we wanted kids. I didn’t want a job where I was always away from home, “ Anders said. “And there was no real guarantee of income. I wanted to be a better father than that.”
So, he focused on teaching.
“The people who had the greatest impact on me—who gave me confidence and character—were my coaches. Teaching golf, like coaching, gave me the opportunity to be a part of someone’s life, to influence them,“ Anders said. “With teaching, I’d have the chance to make a difference—whether it’s a kid with a dream or an adult who needs a little confidence.”
After graduation, Anders worked for the university golf course, then another in El Paso. In 2002, he landed a position as an assistant pro at Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas; helping with tournaments, and teaching adults and juniors alike.
One of his first students at Brookhaven? An eight-year-old named Jordan Spieth.
“The first time I saw his swing, how he hit the ball squarely on the face, I thought, ‘wow, there’s a lot of golf talent here in Dallas.’ I had trained state champions in New Mexico and have never seen anything like this,” Anders said. “Jordan was always something special—he paid very close attention to every word I said, which wasn’t the norm for someone his age. His dad always came with him to the lessons. I think, at the time, Jordan was so good at so many sports, they were trying to find an area of focus. He was a great baseball pitcher. But, he also had great parents who let him pursue whatever would make him the happiest. As talented as he was at golf, no one pushed him into golf. He was fortunate to have the support to follow his own dream. In a lot of ways, that is the thing that’s made him so successful.“
So, what does a golf instructor do with a golf protégée?
“I helped him with a few things—a little sway, taking the club too far back—but I spent a lot of time telling him how good he could be; what the possibilities were for someone with his level of talent,” Anders said. “I guess my role was to help him to dream. After all, he was a +2 handicap by the age of 13; he was consistently one of the top ranked golfers in Texas. And honestly, I still think of Jordan as family. The four years we worked together were some of the proudest times of my career. I mean, that’s what coaching is. You want to have an impact. You want to make a difference in someone’s life, no matter how small. That’s a pretty great way to make a living.”
Then, Life Takes an Unexpected Turn
Although Anders mentored many an up-and-coming golf hopeful during this time, he and Cecilie’s goal of staring their own family hadn’t turned out as planned. After incurring the costs and emotional trauma of working with fertility doctors, they welcomed their first two children into the world; a little girl, Madeleine, in 2004 and first son, Grey in 2007.
They were going to have more children after they paid off the debt incurred from trying to have the first two. Again, life changed.
“In 2008, our church brought some children over from an orphanage in the Ukraine for three weeks, with hopes of finding permanent homes for those kids. Most were younger, but there were two 15 year-old-girls who came over with the group. Although the church placed the younger kids, no one would house the older girls. My wife asked if we had the room,” Anders said. “I said, one of the girls could stay here, but we’re not in the position to adopt. We’ll do everything we can to help one of the girls find a home; we’ll take her anywhere she needs to go, but we don’t have the means to be the adopting family.”
And then, they met Anya.
Although she spoke limited English, this 5’7, 95 pound, undernourished girl had spirit. Her mother had left her in an orphanage as an infant, with some of her siblings. By anyone’s standards, this lovely child had grown up the hard way, fighting, every day—for food, for attention and for a shot at a better life.
Three weeks in the U.S. passed, and no one wanted to give her that opportunity here.
“It was a fairly desperate situation because, in the Ukraine, age 16 is adulthood. So, if you’re in an orphanage and turn 16, you’re dumped on the street, with no money, no skills and really no options. Most go into prostitution or get involved with drugs,” Anders said.
In just a few weeks, the Anders had grown to love Anya, this spirited, fearless girl who already felt like family. When it became clear that there were no other options for her, Cecilie, asked Joey if he wanted to adopt Anya–a feat that would not only change their life, but take upwards of $30,000, numerous trips to the Ukraine and challenges on down the road.
“I said ‘I don’t really know how we’ll do it, but I have to, because I believe this is God’s plan,’” Anders said. “Someday, I’ll have to face God and I don’t want to stand there and have to explain why I turned this down. “
The members of Brookhaven Country Club rallied, supporting a charity golf tournament and silent auction that raised most of the required funds.
“The day of the tournament, it was pouring down rain—it had all the potential for disaster, but yet, 170 people showed up to support us that day,” Anders said. “It was one of those moments you never forget. Anytime anyone asks me why I work at Brookhaven, I think back to that day. Even people who thought we were making a terrible mistake stepped up and helped us out.”
Nine months later, the adoption was official. Cecilie was also pregnant with the Anders’ third biological child.
The Saving Power of Golf
The first year Anya was part of the family wasn’t easy—for anyone.
“That first summer, Anya slept. She was in a new place, with limited language skills, and to cope, she stayed in bed all day,” Anders said. “The second week, I woke her up at 6 a.m. and said, ‘Get up and get dressed, you’re going to the golf course with me.’”
Anya followed Anders around all day, watching him give lessons. In between students, he worked with her on her own golf swing. Although golf was brand new to her, Anya had a natural ability from the beginning.
“She started practicing—going from driving range to putting green to short game area. Within a week, I didn’t have to wake her up and prod her to go to the course with me anymore. She was up, dressed and waiting to go,” Anders said.
By the end of the summer, just four months after taking up the game, Anya was consistently shooting in the eighties. When the school year started, she began playing with the high school golf team and quickly started shooting in the seventies. Just like her new dad, she discovered she had a gift for golf quite by accident.
“To a large degree, Anya’s gotten as far as she has because of golf,” Anders said. “She’s had her setbacks. Although she’s fluent in English now, she had some struggles in school, but I think golf kept her focused. “
After just three years of playing, she earned a golf scholarship to a community college in Waco, Texas, where she has just finished up her first year. Today, the girl who didn’t really have a future not too long ago now has a dream—a career in golf.
Anders is happy with the outcome, but not surprised.
“I believe if you follow your heart, go out on a limb and do something that scares you, although it won’t always be easy, you’ll accomplish something worthwhile,” Anders said. “I think that applies whether you’re talking about Jordan’s career, my wanting to be a golf pro, or adopting Anya. You’ve just got to believe.”
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