In Tiger, a Portrait of a Phenom Who Was Never Allowed to Be a Kid
Tiger, the new documentary about the rise, fall, and rise of Tiger Woods, is what print journalists refer to as a write-around: a profile of a subject in which the subject does not participate. We certainly hear Woods’s voice in this two-part production, the first installment of which aired on HBO Max on Sunday, with the second to arrive January 17. There are plenty of archival interviews, home movies dating back to his infancy, and flashbacks of his triumphs on the golf course, as well as depictions of lower moments, like his arrest in 2017 for driving under the influence of several drugs. But unlike, say, Michael Jordan, who sat for hours of interviews for the ESPN docuseries juggernaut The Last Dance, Woods is not involved in this project.
And that keeps Tiger honest. To truly assess Woods’s career and life beyond the golf course — his competitiveness; the downfall that came after his repeated cheating on his wife, Elin Nordegren; his complicated relationship with his father, Earl Woods — it may be more illuminating to hear from people who know him, who can speak with some critical distance.
Like The Last Dance or O.J.: Made in America, Tiger is a story about athletic excellence that’s also about the engines that power American culture: ambition, capitalism, racism, celebrity, gossip, misogyny, and the love of a great comeback. At a total running time of three hours, directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek — who made the 2015 doc Cartel Land — can only go so deep; this may not be as thorough an assessment of Woods and his legacy as it could have been. The documentary’s beats may be familiar to those who have followed his career closely. Nonetheless, it manages to offer some compelling insight within its tight framework.
The thread that runs through both parts of Tiger is the bond, and tension, between the golf champion and his dad. Part one opens with Earl Woods speaking at the Haskins Collegiate Awards Banquet in 1996, where his then-20-year-old son was honored for his performance as a golfer at Stanford University.
“He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before,” says the elder Woods of Tiger. “The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and his presence. This is my treasure. Please accept it and use it wisely.”
Dueling imagery of the golfer appears on the screen as his father speaks. In the footage from the banquet, young Tiger looks, frankly, burdened. Then we see video footage from 2017, of 41-year-old Tiger stumbling, barefoot and in handcuffs, into a Florida police station, where he was booked for a DUI. (He would later plead guilty to a charge for reckless driving, while pleading not guilty to driving under the influence.) Right away, the documentary argues that the arc of Tiger Woods’s life was shaped most of all by Earl — a flawed mentor who taught his son how to swing a club before he was out of diapers, setting his expectations so high that they deprived the future Masters champion of some of life’s oxygen.
Numerous sources appear on-camera during Tiger: fellow golfers such as Nick Faldo and Rocco Mediate; journalists; Woods’s former caddie and former friend Steve Williams; people close to the Woods family; even Tiger’s kindergarten teacher, Maureen Decker. (Decker remembers asking Earl, on Tiger’s behalf, if the boy could try some sports other than golf. The request was rebuffed. “He was a definite SOB,” she says of Earl.)
But it’s two of Woods’s exes who shed the most light: Dina Parr, who dated Woods in high school and college, and Rachel Uchitel, the nightclub owner whose 2009 affair with Woods ended his marriage and shattered his reputation as a role model. The two women knew Woods at very different periods in his life, and both describe him as finally being able to relax when he was with them — something he had a hard time doing elsewhere.
In footage from home videos, we see a young Woods dancing and playing air saxophone with Parr’s family. “He knew that he could be himself and there was no judgment, no pressure to live up to all these expectations,” Parr says, explaining the difference between her home and Woods’s own. Uchitel — speaking for the first time since the mess, including Woods’s awkward mea culpa press conference in 2010 — says that, during her relationship with Woods, he would wake up in the morning and “allow himself to be a kid,” eating cereal and watching cartoons. Tiger implies that its subject suffers, understandably, from some version of Peter Pan Syndrome.
That may explain, in part, his desire to continue seeking escape, in the form of the multiple affairs that eventually came to light. It’s suggested in the doc that such behavior may have been normalized by his father, who according to family friend Joe Grohman would frequently invite women at their country club back to his Winnebago while Tiger was there golfing. The sordid cheating and Woods’s attempt to cover it up are revisited extensively in part two of the documentary, which gives equal time to the impact that media coverage of his adultery had on the women involved and to the impact that it had on the golfer.
Woods dealt with his share of public shame after the scandal. Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National, where the Masters is held, famously chastised Woods during a press conference, which more than one commentator in Tigercharacterizes as an act of racism. “It was a public whipping,” says former Los Angeles Times writer Thomas Bonk, a statement echoed by sportscaster Bryant Gumbel. But Tiger, rightly, makes sure to note that others were shamed, too, even when they did nothing wrong. (Ex-wife Nordegren does not appear on-camera in the docuseries, but People magazine correspondent Sandra Sobieraj Westfall, who interviewed Nordegren during the crisis, provides some insight from her perspective.)
Woods didn’t hit rock bottom right after his divorce, as most viewers will know. The final portion of the docuseries covers the subsequent back injuries and decline of his game, as well as his 2017 arrest, which is replayed as police-cam coverage and presented in the sad light that it deserves. Woods’s comeback victory at the 2019 Masters is covered, too, and has even more impact because we are able to witness how low Woods sank before it.
The man still has more life to live and more golf to play, so Tiger ends on a question mark. Invoking the voice of Earl Woods one more time before it ends — “This is my treasure. Please accept it and use it wisely” — it asks whether the pioneering golfer will abide by his father’s ideals or do something simpler, and maybe greater: Let down his guard and allow the world to see a human being, instead of a precious object.