HBO’s ‘Tiger’ Captures the Scandal and Glory of Golf Icon Tiger Woods

Even if golf might not be your game, it will be difficult to not get pulled into the grand narrative of HBO’s “Tiger,” a visceral docuseries about the career of Tiger Woods. The golf icon’s rise and near fall takes on a human dimension in this chronicle, where once again we are reminded that neither fame nor wealth can spare us of folly. Some of the best documentaries have the potential of making any subject fascinating. This one will undoubtedly appeal to Woods’ legions of fans who will worship again at the images of the virtuosos’ monster swing. But at its core is a story of a man who for years was never truly free from the shadows of his upbringing, even when conquering the world.

Directors Matthew Hamachek and Matthew Heineman, with master documentarian Alex Gibney producing, tell the Woods story like a gladiatorial epic.  He first begins picking up golf clubs at eight months (supposedly), and his father, Earl Woods, immediately takes notice. What emerges is a classic portrait of a hard-willed father practically designing what course his son’s life will follow. Earl’s dialogue, whether in recordings or media interviews, has a messianic cadence. He sees Tiger as someone who will transcend the game itself and turn it into a symbol of Black success in America. Names like Gandhi and Mandela are thrown around. The drive is understandable in an era when many country clubs in the U.S. still refused to admit Black Americans into their ranks. In the 1970s as a small boy Tiger Woods already gained enough attention to appear on TV with Bob Hope, showing off his swing. By the ‘90s Woods was winning every major competitive event, astounding fans and experts through both his youth and prodigious skill. But behind the emerging icon is a personality unfamiliar to the tsunami that comes with power and access. Woods finds himself swirling in a terrain of women, partying, glory and a rebelling body, which eventually leads to some major public crashes.

Missing from “Tiger” is the subject himself. The famously private Woods does not sit down in front of the cameras to comment on the events we see unfold. While this creates a sense of distance, it also adds to the docuseries’ unique feel of myth meeting fact.  Edited to a grandiose score by H. Scott Salinas that seems to want to evoke actual tigers on the hunt, Woods’ key moments as he rises from a young amateur to a monstrous talent continuously winning every Masters Tournament, are revisited to emphasize his sheer physical power. Woods was a Black American pioneer in a game seen as predominantly white and elitist, thereby doing for golf what Michael Jordan achieved as a basketball player, but to a quite unique degree. He made the sport “cool.” Those uncomfortable truths about race in America tend to bubble up anywhere and friends remember Woods playing at major events in his early years of fame and the “n” word still being uttered in the boxes of the southern elite. 

It might come across as a reach to compare “Tiger” to “Citizen Kane,” but there is that same journalistic feel of tracking down a great man, where the only way of getting a portrait is through those who know him. Dina Parr, Woods’ first girlfriend in high school, remembers a young man entrapped by the rigors of a disciplined home, with golf training consuming his life like an obsession. Rare home videos show him at Parr’s house finally getting to party like a normal kid. Family friend and biographer Pete McDaniel provides insights into Earl Woods as a man who sincerely loved his son, constantly calling him his best friend until the end, but obsessed with ensuring his greatness. Even Bryant Gumbel appears on camera to give some of the sharper insights into Woods’ place within American culture and media. Sir Nick Faldo, another golfing star who competed with Woods, delivers the more detached view of a fellow athlete, expressing the awe of watching Woods achieve scores never before seen in the sport.

The second part of “Tiger” then compliments the first half with the necessary fall of the hero. Faces and moments will be instantly familiar. There’s Woods’ marriage to the beautiful Swede Elin Nordegren and its promise of settling down for the young megastar, his wholesome appearances on shows with Oprah. Yet there’s that other side to fame, when immense wealth taps into someone’s truer, now unrestrained nature. A National Enquirer journalist breathlessly describes Woods’ trips to Las Vegas, where he would be at clubs basking in debauched fun with friends like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Women became the equivalent of a drug. “Tiger” treats this material with more psychological depth, pondering if it was the classic case of a man who had grown in an ultimate bubble and with money could run from his father’s overbearing shadow. In essence, Woods had never been allowed to be a kid, now he could be one with Vegas friends covering the tab. The mistress who would eventually explode Wood’s life on the tabloid front pages, club owner Rachel Uchitel, sits for the first time on camera, visibly nervous but willing to talk. She’s not one for overly scandalous details, but she does mention Woods having a habit of waking up in the morning to eat cereal and watch cartoons. 

What was not so childish is what would follow later: Divorce, a highly-publicized DUI arrest and bone fractures that would require major surgery. Some details seem taken out of fiction, like how Woods’ knee injuries were exacerbated by his desire to partake in Navy Seals training. It seems it was Woods’s way of forging a closer link to his father, a former military man. The lows would eventually lead to great highs, including winning the Masters Tournament at the age of 43 in 2019. While we not all have a gift like Woods, it is a reminder we are all so human. Woods was pushed and pushed by his father and the dream was achieved, but at a price. “Tiger” at its best is a stirring biography, devoid of too much hagiography while still understanding Woods’ greatness, and fragility. We admire the titans of culture, forgetting they carry the same scars that have lingered for years and in private are chased by the same demons as us all. 

Tiger” Part 1 and Part 2 air Jan. 10 and 17 at 6 p.m. ET on HBO.