What does it take to make a champion? What does it cost? And what does it even mean? Those are the questions asked by the HBO documentary, Tiger (Part I debuted last night), about the golf great Tiger Woods. And the answers, while not shocking, are surprising in their pathos.
If you come to this film looking for shades of The Last Dance, ESPN’s 10-part saga about Michael Jordan and the Nineties Chicago Bulls, adjust your expectations. Yes, both offer portraits of dominant athletes maniacal in their focus, preparation, and will to win. Both are also firmly on the side of their respective heroes, even as they explore their foibles. But the projects are divergent in scope, temperament, and approach. Tiger lacks the same churning energy of The Last Dance, the sense of exuberance it showed in Jordan’s jaw-dropping skill, its delight in the petty feuds and deeply-held grudges that fueled his competitive fire.
This muted energy is partly due, of course, to the fact that golf is a very different sport than basketball; slow and methodical, solitary and interior. But these are also portraits painted with very different brushes. The ESPN miniseries juggernaut — itself a dominant cultural force, consuming online chatter and socially distant conversation over several weeks last spring — reveals Michael Jordan’s psychology primarily through how he plays. (As well as in interviews where His Airness plays the part, cigar and whiskey highball by his side.) Tiger reveals its subject through how he lives — or doesn’t. This is a tragedy in three acts.
Like a star prosecutor in a high-profile trial, Tiger states its case forcefully with the first words uttered in the film. Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, is speaking at a banquet in 1996 to honor his son’s selection as the collegiate men’s player of the year. “Please forgive me, but sometimes I get very emotional when I talk about my son,” Earl says, his voice wavering. “My heart fills with so much joy when I realize that this young man is going to help so many people. He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and his presence.” Directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek cut archival footage of the speech with clips of Tiger as a club-swinging toddler, of his first Masters victory, of massive crowds following him on the golf course like a swarm of bees. Then we hear Earl’s concluding sentence, laid over grainy black-and-white footage of a paunchy, balding, and barefoot Tiger, handcuffed and walking stiffly to an X taped to the floor of a holding cell, where he turns around to pose for a mug shot: “This is my treasure, please accept it and use it wisely.”
What follows are exhibits A through P of a childhood stolen in the service of greatness. We see a happy little boy made into a machine. He must be built to succeed against long odds — a young Black boy in a very old, lily-white sport — and his success cannot be for its own sake. He must triumph in the name of all people of color, and he must go on to use his status to heal and uplift the entire world. He must be the medium and the message. He must be perfect.
Earl, a former Green Beret who did two tours in Vietnam, is no cruel taskmaster; he’s not that easy of a villain. His abundant love for Tiger is obvious, and the two routinely call each other best friends. Still, Earl is intent on instilling a military level of discipline in his son. The pressure he puts on Tiger is relentless — he never takes his foot off the gas. (Tiger’s mother Kultida, too, is described as a domineering force who would tell him not just to beat his opponents but to “put [his] foot on their throat.”) Tiger’s kindergarten teacher says the timid five-year-old once asked her to ask his dad if he could play a sport other than golf once in a while. Earl refused.
Some of the most heartbreaking testimony comes from Tiger’s high school girlfriend, Dina Parr, a normalizing influence who brought him to the movies and bowling for the first time. She shares home video of a teenage Tiger dancing hammily with her and her friends, wearing a silly costume. He is unrecognizable from the robotic presence we know from golf tournaments, whose only display of emotion is a furious fist-pump when he sinks a winning putt. Earl and Kultida, however, were not interested in a carefree, fun-loving Tiger. Parr recounts a breakup of shocking callousness and finality (she saved the Dear Jane letter, handwritten on lined notebook paper), clearly forced on him by parents who viewed her as a dangerous distraction.
In young adulthood, Tiger begins to distance himself from his dad’s vision in small ways. In interviews, he laments the loss of privacy that being a phenomenon requires. When one reporter confronts him with his dad’s grandiose ideas, noting that Earl believes Tiger will become more important than Gandhi or Jesus, Tiger demurs with an uneasy smile: “I think that’s just a proud dad speaking.” He tells Oprah that he reads hate mail, most of it racially charged, “to remind myself of what I have to try and do.” Yet he simultaneously bucks against the unfair burden of being a spokesperson for all African Americans, stating in the same interview that he doesn’t like being called Black. (“I’m ‘Caublinasian,’” he says — a portmanteau of Caucasian, black, Indian, and Asian, which he invented to account for both of his parents’ mixed heritage.)
Eventually, a rift grows between father and son. Earl is revealed to be a philanderer who openly pursued other women in front of Tiger. The betrayals increasingly generate a pent-up rage in Tiger, to the point that the pair are nearly estranged by the time of Earl’s death from cancer in 2006. Most telling is how terrified the close family friends being interviewed are to disclose these transgressions, still reluctant to incur Tiger’s wrath — or Earl’s, from beyond the grave — by airing the true depths of discord within the family. “There were heated disagreements,” one says. Pressed to elaborate, he adds only: “I can’t go there. That’s one place I know not to go.”
By the end of Part I, Tiger has won several major championships and married a gorgeous Swedish model, but we know we’re looking at a ticking time bomb; we’ve seen it assembled wire by wire over the last 90 minutes. Part II (airing next Sunday night at 9 P.M. ET) delves into the part of Tiger’s story that many Americans who aren’t sports fans might know better: the affair with Manhattan club hostess Rachel Uchitel (who gives her first interview here since the scandal erupted in 2009, and whose initial appearance onscreen is this documentary’s only moment of delectable shock); the emergence of dozens more women from the seed-o-sphere, porn stars and escorts and Hooters girls; the car crash outside his Florida home after his wife learned of one affair and attacked him and their Escalade with a golf club. A former editor from The National Enquirer shows up, ostensibly to explain how the tabloid broke the story of Tiger’s double life (including that their reporter grabbed a tampon that had been discarded by a woman just before her encounter with Tiger, and kept it in the office vault as potential DNA evidence), but seemingly to remind us that there are people far more depraved and soulless in this world than troubled rich guys who cheat on their wives in diner parking lots.
The sex scandal wouldn’t be Woods’ only low point. A series of surgeries lead him to a reliance on painkillers and antidepressants. An arrest for impaired driving in 2017 — the mug shot that kicked off the documentary — would seem to have been the nail in the coffin of Tiger’s career. But this is still Earl’s son we’re talking about.
The filmmakers choose a redemptive arc, ending — and this is not much of a spoiler — on Tiger’s incredible comeback victory at the 2019 Masters, at 43 years old. It may seem too sympathetic a choice, but it doesn’t feel like they’re putting our hero back on a pedestal. Instead, this is a resurrection where he gets to keep both feet on the ground — neither savior nor monster, but an ordinary person who does an extraordinary thing.
Still, the lingering taste is not entirely one of sweet victory. If there’s one similarity Tiger shares with Michael Jordan beyond supernatural talent and killer instinct, it would appear to be an unwillingness to engage in true introspection, to wrestle fully with the past. Jordan showed as much in his interviews for The Last Dance, demonstrating that characteristic defiance and steadfast belief in the rightness of his ways. Tiger may have made his apologies to his family, and done the hard work of getting sober, but Tiger reveals that he still doesn’t talk to several of the oldest, dearest friends who were beside him as he came up, and who sought to support him through his personal setbacks. From a close childhood friend to his longtime caddy Steve Williams, who he unceremoniously fired through his agent in 2011, Woods has cut people out of his life who seem to represent that low period, and never looked back. This is a useful, even necessary skill as an athlete, the ability to shake off a mistake, an ugly shot, a bad game, and move forward as confidently as you did before. As a human being, excising the past like it’s a tumor is less effective; it’s always possible the cancer could return, stronger than before.