Tiger Woods doc “Tiger” gets caught in the sand trap of its own ambition

Tiger Woods HBO Tiger (HBO)

HBO’s documentary of golf great Tiger Woods suffers from a lack of participation from its subject, even as it charts his complicated home life and many personal scandals.

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It’s one of the most well-documented sports stories of all time: widely regarded as one of the greatest to ever pick up a golf club, Tiger Woods has spent much of the last three decades under the intense media spotlight, where everything from his meteoric professional rise to his disturbing downfall has been chronicled—and scrutinized—in painstaking detail. With the help of investigative interviews with people from Woods’ past, directors Matthew Heineken and Matthew Hamachek attempt to pull back the curtain on the golfing great’s extraordinary journey in their new HBO docuseries, Tiger.

While they’re able to develop a more nuanced portrait of the multiracial man that revolutionized a predominantly white sport, Heineman and Hamachek struggle to fully excavate the qualities that make Woods such a distant and mystifying figure. Instead, they choose to highlight the constructive and destructive influence of his unhealthy relationship with his father at all costs.

The two-part docuseries tees off at the 1996 Haskins Collegiate Awards Banquet, where an emotional Earl Woods honors his son with prophetic proclamations that could have been detrimental if it wasn’t for his son’s once-in-a-lifetime talent. It’s a talent Earl first recognized when Tiger was an infant and one that he showed off in an appearance with his son on The Mike Douglas Show in 1978.

“He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before,” Earl proudly declares at the banquet, with the camera panning occasionally to a somber-looking 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.”

In the 90-minute first part of Tiger, Heineman and Hamachek follow Woods’ unprecedented rise to the top of the PGA, which will be a welcome trip down memory lane for the fans that watched him dominate his fiercest rivals with an unflappable killer instinct in the 2000s.

Tiger Woods HBO

It chronicles Woods’ complicated relationship with his late father, punctuating his most celebrated victories with old home videos that reveal that he was not only his father’s son through and through—he was also his Frankensteinian creation. From the time that he tells Tiger’s kindergarten teacher, Maureen Decker, that he should not play any sports other than golf, it becomes increasingly clear that the elder Woods practically manufactured and conditioned his son into becoming a shot-making machine from an early age.

The ultimate goal of becoming an all-time great deprived the younger Woods of many formative experiences throughout his youth. This is made abundantly clear by the revealing home videos of his first love, Dina Paar, that show a baby-faced teenager jamming out with friends and going to the prom. The abrupt end of their relationship, which was severed with a strongly-worded handwritten letter from Tiger that was likely orchestrated by external forces, shows that the Woods family would stop at nothing to reach new heights.

With race being a central part of the 15-time major champion’s story, the documentary seeks to highlight the subtle and overt racism that Woods experienced both on and off the golf course, namely the obstacles that he and his father had to overcome and the polarized discourse over his decision to identify as “Cablinasian.” While the filmmakers document Woods’ ambivalence when it comes to embracing his Black heritage (apart from a famous Nike ad where his team unashamedly played the race card), they fail to offer up new insights about his internalized struggles with racial identity, especially after his father proclaimed that he would go down as the cultural messiah of the sporting world.

It’s no accident that Heineman and Hamachek choose to end the first half with the death of Earl Woods and the introduction of Rachel Uchitel—two events that ultimately triggered Woods’ self-inflicted fall from grace.

After finding herself at the epicenter of a cheating scandal that involved over a dozen women, Uchitel breaks her silence about her relationship with Woods in the docuseries’ salacious second act, which shows that the media not only reduced Woods to sensationalized headlines and late-night punchlines but also chose to blame her for the torrid affair. Simply put, her candid revelations paint the picture of a powerful man who believed he could have it all—and get away with it.

…an ambitious project in scope that finishes just under par.

With riveting recounts of the golfing champion’s voluntary training with the Navy Seals and his sex-driven escapades in Las Vegas, the first hour of the second half seems to take on the tone of a tabloid, with Neal Boulton—the former editor of The National Enquirer that broke the news of Woods’ infidelity—revealing that “there had been more New York Post covers dedicated to the Tiger scandal than 9/11.”

While it’s hard enough to sit through his failed attempts at mounting a professional comeback, it’s probably the grainy dashcam and security footage of Woods from the night of his DUI arrest in 2017 that will serve as the most sobering and cautionary tale for viewers of all ages. While they could have chosen to end the documentary when Woods was at his lowest, Heineman and Hamachek buy into the media’s narrative of the resurrection of a former hero, concluding with his unlikely victory at the 2019 Masters.

The project’s biggest flaw is the lack of input from Woods’ contemporaries. There are noticeably no interviews with Phil Mickelson (whose work ethic was once “despised” by Woods) or David Duval (whose career stalled when Woods began his quest for the “Tiger Slam”). There are no recent soundbites from Tiger’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren or his influential mother Kultida Woods and, of course, no official appearances from the man himself apart from a collection of old TV interviews. Almost all of the documentary’s interviewees are veteran journalists or regular people that knew Tiger during a short period of his life but are now longer in contact with him, such as his former friend Amber Lauria and his longtime caddy Steve Williams.

Nevertheless, this will likely be the definitive documentary about the golfing great’s storied life and career until he decides to create his own like Michael Jordan did with The Last Dance. Until then, this will have to do — an ambitious project in scope that finishes just under par.

Tiger will air on HBO in two installments: the first at 9 p.m. on January 10, followed by the second at 9 p.m. on January 17.

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