Sporting Life

Pinning labels on young stars is convenient but dangerous

Jordan Spieth, if you listen closely to the hymns of praise, has Mother Teresa's heart and Genghis Khan's ambition. He has a caddie who resembles Yoda, owns a degree in golf history and will soon be writing the male version of the etiquette column Miss Manners.

The kid is perfect.

God help him if he ever throws a club.

Jordan Spieth had to tell the media the other day that he isn't Tiger Woods. This was instructive and scary. For when a kid is giving perspective to a middle-aged press pack then something is wrong with us. In short, he's telling us to calm down. We should.

Firstly, as a human being he turned 21 just this month and, unless you are a priest, kindly try and remember what you were at that age. Yes, imperfect. Secondly, as a golfer, he has just begun his ride and we're already setting his destination - as one of the greatest.

Kyrgios has to be less silly but deserves time to grow out of his youthful rebellion. Spieth has to be allowed to be silly and not trapped in a choir-boy cliche. Watching them grow is more fun than idly predicting where they will go.

It's instinctive, of course, when a young talent flares to ask, My God, How Good Is This Kid? Except that in an act of thinking unfairness we're setting the bar at Woods' height and then telling the kid: Jump.

If he doesn't get there will he be a failure?

Spieth seems perfectly pleasant and has played unyieldingly this year and his chase of a third straight Major at The Open promises to be fascinating. That's where it should end but in life these days, and in sport, we're imprisoned by a simplistic narrative: Saint or Sinner. In this glib packaging world of convenient storylines either you're The Second Coming like Spieth or you're Nick Kyrgios and the "most hated man in tennis".

Kyrgios is just another young athlete reduced to a caricature. He is the anti-Spieth: Lots of hair and can't do anything right. But he isn't a sporting Satan, just an old-fashioned young rascal made of many colourful parts; audacious and amusing, silly and stylish, insolent and irresistible.

We don't need to be admirers of ugly behaviour but we've got to be fans of perspective. Krygios is only 20, only a kid, who hasn't sorted out yet that big shots, not a big mouth, make for greatness.

We've got to insist that Kyrgios reaches for a finer standard and yet also wink occasionally at his bravado. We've got to remember a younger Roger Federer pouted and hurled rackets and a swearing teenager named Bjorn Borg - " a real nutcase" he later called himself - was suspended by Swedish officials. Then they grew up into elegant men and so, eventually, hopefully, will Kyrgios.

Balance is what he requires, patience is what he needs, but what we want is instant heroes, we demand ready-made role models, we cry for colourful characters. Except if one showed up, like the once much-loved golf champion Walter Hagen from early last century, who cabled a hotel to say: "Fill the bathtub with ale and champagne and break out your best Scotch", we'd simply say he's irresponsible and Twitter him to death.

Kyrgios has to be less silly but deserves time to grow out of his youthful rebellion. Spieth has to be allowed to be silly and not trapped in a choir-boy cliche. Watching them grow is more fun than idly predicting where they will go.

Rory McIlroy, when he emerged, was announced widely as the anti-Woods: Engaging, refreshing, civil. Except the Northern Irishman threw clubs, walked off a course, broke a girl's heart when wedding cards were ready, was in court with his management company, and suddenly wasn't so shiny. No, just young and human and the wearer of pressure and maker of mistakes.

In this life in the public eye, where 25 cameras - in slow-motion and zoom - watch you, the young athlete's immaturity is exaggerated and decency is inflated. Spieth has poise but retaining it will be his challenge for he knows he will err, may get injured, surely fight his swing, possibly change caddies and definitely wear controversy.

This is the sporting life and how he wears it will eventually define him. So let us watch him, and enjoy him, and compliment him, but try not to label him and box him and over-eulogise him. After all, we don't even know him. For at 21 he barely knows himself.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2015, with the headline 'Pinning labels on young stars is convenient but dangerous'. Print Edition | Subscribe