Forget the ludicrous mini-series “Tiger King,” which premiered right around the same time as the pandemic hit America. Forget Tony the Tiger, whose voice and visage have sold millions of boxes of Frosted Flakes. Forget, if you’re an old hippie, Tiger Balm, the cooling, menthol-infused cream you and your friends would dab on your forehead after passing around a joint.
The only thing that the word Tiger should conjure up is Tiger Woods. But even if that does happen, what thoughts come next? For followers of the tabloid press, it could be that he was the first Black professional golfer (false), or he was a philanderer (true), or a sex addict (true). But as sports fans and folks who make use of more mainstream news sources (who certainly didn’t ignore the disreputable side of the story) know, Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was, in his prime, one of the greatest players ever to hit the links.
HBO’s two-part, three-hour documentary “Tiger” (Part I, Jan. 10; Part II, Jan. 17) covers a lot of ground in telling of the man who really did change the game. Using footage as far back as when he was on “The Mike Douglas Show” demonstrating drives at the age of 2, and up to him competing in the 2019 Masters Tournament, co-directors Matthew Hamachek and Matthew Heineman paint a celebratory warts-and-all picture of the ambitious and talented and troubled athlete.
Eschewing a chronological approach to the Woods story, the film jumps all over the place for the sake of drama, detail, and a deeper understanding of his character. The directors hint of that method right near the beginning, when they flash three clips of him: playing as a little kid, winning as an adult, and handcuffed.
Part I focuses on Tiger’s relationship with his dad, Earl, who taught him, shaped him, pushed him into being the best he could be, supposedly starting when he was 8 months old. It’s not long before Tiger’s blooming career seemed to be more of Earl’s vision than young Tiger’s.
Amazing footage of his wins as an amateur and later a pro are accompanied by insightful talking heads segments with people who have known him, have worked with him, have reported on him, among them his high school girlfriend Dina Parr, his former caddy Steve Williams, and sports journalist Bryant Gumbel.
The film never shies away from the cultural aspects of what Woods went through and inevitably helped to change. After turning pro and getting a big endorsement from Nike, the company decided to play the race card in their ads, with one of them showing him and, in printed words, asking, “Are you ready for me?” in reference to a Black man becoming a star in a white man’s game. It just didn’t matter to fans. They all ate him up, swarmed him for autographs, were blown away by his violent swings and insane putts.
Included in Part I are Tiger’s press conference admission that he missed his privacy, some tension in the father-son relationship, his surprise marriage to Swedish fashion model Elin Nordegren, and the death of Earl.
Part II gets into darker territory, and a dive into marriage problems caused by Tiger’s introduction to the anything goes world of Las Vegas, and a developing interest in other women, sometimes many other women, often at the same time.
While plenty about him is revealed, the filmmakers, to their credit, don’t go overboard in presenting it as sleazy business; they don’t OK or gloss over his activities, but they give him a partial benefit of the doubt by pointing out that he was dealing with an addiction.
Still, he remained a great champ, piling up wins, trophies, endorsements, and even more fans. But, as Steve Williams eventually says, time had taken its toll on Tiger Woods being Tiger Woods. Some of that came in the form of leg and knee problems, some was due to personal demons he had been ignoring through the years, one big dilemma evolved out of his lengthy affair with Rachel Uchitel, who many people believed was his “main” mistress. Some of the most intriguing parts of the film are of Uchitel explaining her side of the story, right to the camera.
It’s difficult to believe that through it all, he continued to be what one reporter called a “winning machine.” Until things caught up with him, until all hell broke loose in his life. Until, with comedians milking his downward turn, and paparazzi making the people close to him miserable, he hit bottom and knew the only way out was to try to climb back up.
This is a story that’s as dark as it is triumphant. Things got worse for him before they got better. Here’s a hint of where it goes. As he’s competing in his attempted comeback at the 2019 Masters, an announcer says, “The impossible has become possible.”
Part I of “Tiger” premieres on HBO on Jan. 10 at 9 p.m. Part II is on Jan. 17 at 9 p.m.