HBO’s Tiger Woods documentary takes a deep dive on the star’s daddy issues but lacks nuance
It’s clear from the outset that “Tiger,” the two-part series presented by Jigsaw Productions and HBO Sports that debuts Sunday on HBO and HBO Max, is as much about Tiger Woods’ father, Earl Woods, as it is about the golfer himself. The athlete, who was not interviewed for the project, is examined through a largely sympathetic lens — but his late father emerges as an all-encompassing villain who set Woods up for professional success and personal failure.
With never-before-seen footage and interviews from the golf star’s childhood and family friends, the 190-minute documentary directed by Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek paints a gripping psychological portrait of the golfer despite a relatively simple thesis: Driven to success by an overbearing father fixated on his greatness from birth, the superstar athlete never had the opportunity to develop an authentic identity or healthy ways to cope with the pressures of fame, family life and the high-stakes world of professional sports.
Everyone interviewed — from family friend Pete McDaniel to Woods’ kindergarten teacher, Maureen Decker — suggests Earl Woods was a difficult man who focused on his son’s golf career to the exclusion of everything else in the youth’s life. Woods’ first girlfriend, Dina Parr, doesn’t paint a flattering picture of either of the golfer’s parents, recounting how they pressured him to abruptly end their three-year relationship for fear that she would derail his future.
Although many “showbiz” parents defend similar actions by saying they’re only acting in their children’s best interests — Netflix’s “Selena” explores a similar conflict between the pop star and her father — others might suggest such parents are primarily motivated by narcissism and control and that they view anyone with the potential to play an important role in their children’s lives as a threat.
Although Tiger did not become the messianic figure that Earl predicted, he did, of course, become a golf phenom.
While “Tiger” doesn’t devote much time to the golfer’s mother, Kultida Woods, the documentary hints, via several interviewees like Parr, that she was no easier on her son than her husband. She wasn’t content with Woods simply winning; she wanted him to “kill” his competition on the golf course, according to family friends.
Archival footage of Earl Woods discussing his son hardly disproves the documentarians’ thesis: In one clip, he even predicts his son will make as much of an impact on the world as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela.
Although Woods did not become the messianic figure that his father predicted, he did, of course, become a golf phenom, turning pro in 1996 at age 20 after winning his third U.S. Amateur Championship. And over the next 12 years, he went on to win a string of major competitions, including four Masters Tournaments, four PGA Championships, three British Opens and three U.S. Opens.
But his breathtaking rise in the golf world was not without difficulty. As a rare golf star of color, Woods constantly faced overt racism — from spectators calling him the N-word during competitions to rivals such as Fuzzy Zoeller making “fried chicken” and “collard greens” jokes at his expense.
Woods, however, was ill-equipped to discuss race and racism, notoriously drawing ridicule after he told Oprah Winfrey in 1997 that, as a multiracial man (his mother is Thai American and he claimed to have white and Native American ancestry), he was uncomfortable being described as African American and thought of himself as “Cablinasian” (Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian). His remark was largely perceived to be a rejection of his Black identity at the time — though the portmanteau “Blasian” is an increasingly common way for people of Black and Asian ancestry to describe themselves in 2021. He thus unwittingly alienated himself from the African American community, members of which had been among his biggest fans as he broke barriers in golf.
Strangely, “Tiger” doesn’t really explore why the golfer might have felt distant from a Black identity even though he was seen by both the Black community and by white people as Black, rather than multiracial. The fact that he grew up in a multiracial household, in a mostly white suburb in conservative Orange County, California, likely led to part of the disconnect, but the docuseries provides no commentary about what it must have been like for Woods to be one of the few brown people on the golf course, or one of the few brown kids in his schools and his larger community.
In their effort to address Woods’ struggles with compassion, the filmmakers bend over backwards to absolve him of any wrongdoing even when Woods has taken responsibility for his personal failings.
Woods’ Oprah interview wasn’t a one-off; he was generally uncomfortable with life in the spotlight and was criticized for not revealing more of his personality to the public. “Tiger” shows how reserved and awkward the athlete appeared during interviews, giving terse answers and showing little emotion.
Many people assumed he was like that in private, too, especially when major life milestones, such as his 2004 marriage to Elin Nordegren and the 2006 death of his father, seemed to have little effect on his golf game. Friends interviewed for “Tiger,” though, said he was simply able to compartmentalize aspects of his life, appearing squeaky clean to the public while having multiple extramarital affairs and turning to prescription drugs to sleep and cope with chronic injuries.
But in November 2009, Woods’ private and professional lives collided when the National Enquirer published a story about his affair with a New York nightclub hostess named Rachel Uchitel, and a subsequent domestic dispute after Nordegren heard the news led to the golfer getting in his car in the middle of the night with Ambien in his system.
Multiple women then admitted to affairs with Woods, making his private life fodder for comedians, tabloid newspapers and his longtime detractors alike. Golf insiders — many of whom had long hoped for Woods’ downfall — took delight in scolding him for his misdeeds, amounting to what journalist Bryant Gumbel called a “public whipping” in the documentary. He doubts that a white golfer would’ve faced nearly as much criticism for being a serial cheater, which is hardly an uncommon occurrence among professional athletes.
Woods eventually divorced, entered rehab, tried to make a comeback and apologized for his sins — which the documentary of course connects back to Earl Woods, who reportedly didn’t hide his own extramarital affairs from a young Woods. Mentors Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley are also cited as bad influences on Woods. Both trains of thought stand out as part of the documentary’s shortcomings: In their effort to address Woods’ struggles with compassion, the filmmakers bend over backward to absolve him of any wrongdoing even when Woods has taken responsibility for his personal failings. The documentary is all too eager to let him off the hook and point the finger elsewhere — but sometimes famous men cheat on their wives because they have the opportunity and take advantage of it, not because their dads cheated and their friends are philanderers.
Years went by without Woods winning a major tournament after he returned to the sport. Then, in 2017, he made headlines again for driving while under the influence of prescription drugs. At that point, sports commentators like Stephen A. Smith and Jemele Hill suggested it was time for Woods to pack his golf bags and retire, but he wisely didn’t listen.
Woods then won the 2019 Masters Tournament — his 15th major title and the first his two children were old enough to remember — defying all expectations. While he has not, at least yet, achieved his goal of surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ record (Nicklaus won 18 major titles), the shocking comeback Woods made after everyone counted him out is likely a sufficient reward for now.
Part cautionary tale and part comeback story, “Tiger” shows that triumph after tragedy is the sweetest — as are, perhaps, the wins you rack up just because you want to, not because someone else wants them for you.