Tiger Woods is perhaps the most famous golfer of all time, which means many people are well aware of his many incredible highs as well as his stunning lows. But the HBO documentary Tiger still finds a way to present a compelling narrative in its two parts, as directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek pull viewers into the life of a man who worked so hard to appear inhumanly perfect, both on and off the golf course.
The documentary boasts never-before-seen footage and interviews with an all-star roster, including Woods’ former caddy Steve Williams, golf legend Sir Nick Faldo, family friend and biographer Pete McDaniel, sportscaster Bryant Gumbel, Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce, and New York Times writer Karen Crouse. They all provide engaging and informative perspectives on the golf legend, while Woods’ high school girlfriend Dina Parr offers a moving, often heartbreaking, look at the Tiger she knew and loved but ultimately lost to his burgeoning career.
The late Earl Woods is a major figure in his son’s life, but he’s seldom recalled fondly. Tiger Woods’ grade-school teacher describes Earl as a “pain in the ass” who none of her colleagues ever wanted to see. The appraisals don’t get much more positive from there: Later, the Army vet is compared to “Dr. Frankenstein,” and his son, his monstrous “creation.” The younger Woods is described as someone who was constructed from “the outside in,” with no apparent inner life, and the responsibility for his psychological damage is placed unanimously on his parents’ shoulders.
Earl Woods’ dreams stretched beyond being a proud dad who believed his son could accomplish anything. He declared that Tiger wouldn’t just excel in the field chosen for him, but “transcend” it. He said (out loud) that Tiger would “help so many people,” like Gandhi or, most absurdly, Jesus Christ. Earl and Tiger’s mother, Kultida, would let nothing get in the way of fulfilling these dreams, not even Tiger himself. “The development of the machine always took precedent,” Crouse explains. At times, it seemed as if a young Tiger, a golf prodigy since he was 8 months old, was trapped in a cult devoted to a mythic Tiger Woods, someone who never truly existed.
Tiger makes it clear that Woods didn’t share his father’s audacious hopes, which centered around him being an inspirational figure, albeit one who would refrain from engaging in politics or activism. But Gandhi and Jesus were overtly political figures with a deep connection to the communities they represented; Tiger Woods just wanted to play golf better than anyone else. Ironically, this single-minded obsession kept him from achieving the greatness Earl Woods envisioned. Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick were both willing to make political statements that put their careers at risk—this is how they “transcended” their sports, and it’s a risk that Woods has never been willing to make. He was driven to establish himself as an icon and a brand. This meant avoiding controversy. Even his charity work, which is considerable, bolstered his inoffensive image.
Woods shattered golf’s color barrier as the first Black man to win the Masters, the prestigious tournament held on a former plantation. The documentary follows the sports icon as he pushes past overt racism and incredible pressure to triumph in 1997 with an incredible 12-shot margin of victory, the largest in the tournament’s history. McDaniel notes how Black America “claimed” Tiger with great pride, but the athlete made a point of distancing himself, seeking a sort of untouchable universality. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1997, he declared that he wasn’t just African American, but “Cablinasian,” a portmanteau of “Caucasian,” “Black,” Native American (or “Indian”), and “Asian.” (Black people were disappointed, but not surprised, that “Caucasian” came first.) In a prescient routine at the time, comedian Wanda Sykes joked that while Woods was now “down to 25 percent” Black, that would quickly change if he ever got in trouble—the headlines would read, “Black Golfer Arrested.”
During its first half, the documentary follows Woods’ thrilling rise to the top. The second installment focuses on his shocking fall from grace—his secret (but not for long) life spending time with “high-end escorts” and having numerous extramarital affairs—without sinking into tabloid sensationalism. Tiger reveals demons that compelled Woods to jeopardize the life he’d always claimed mattered most to him. Rachel Uchitel, who found herself at the epicenter of the sex scandal that would rip away the curtain from Woods’ carefully constructed facade, speaks candidly about her relationship with Woods for the first time. She’s presented as Woods’ unavoidable reckoning, and when she first appears on screen, the John Cooper Clarke song “Evidently Chickentown” plays forebodingly. The documentary doesn’t address how Woods entered Uchitel’s life during an equally vulnerable period for her (Uchitel’s fiancé died on 9/11), but it does show how the media blamed her because Woods chose to publicly humiliate his wife, Elin Nordegren, and reduce himself to a late-night punchline. The world quickly turned on him, savoring the schadenfreude from his disgrace.
Later, Gumbel and McDaniel spare no words condemning Augusta’s racist “public whipping” of Tiger when he returns to the Masters. Augusta National chairman Billy Payne declared before the 2010 tournament that Tiger had “disappointed all of us,” as if they owned him. Woods’ sordid behavior was repulsive but personal; unlike someone like Lance Armstrong, the golfer didn’t betray his sport. His wife and children deserved an apology, but not Billy Payne or even his fans. Woods had given the latter everything on the greens, and we are shown the price his body paid over the years. The golfer overcame debilitating pain to win the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg, but his aging body was the one opponent he couldn’t ultimately defeat. During a lengthy slump, he was asked by Charlie Rose why he wasn’t playing like he once did. This was a silly question, and one Woods had already answered years earlier: “Father Time always wins.”
The grainy black-and-white footage from Woods’ 2017 DUI arrest haunts Tiger, and if you are only casually familiar with his career, it’s understandable if you assume while watching that this marks its tragic end. What unfolds throughout the documentary makes Woods’ 2018 comeback, when he won the PGA Tour after a five-year drought, seem improbable, almost fantastic, but Tiger Woods still had a few miracles left in him. Tiger effectively reminds us why we found the legend of Tiger Woods so compelling, while never losing sight of his complex humanity.