'Tiger': TV Review

Tiger Woods
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Tiger Woods

Fun, but insufficiently insightful.
1/10/2021

Executive producer Alex Gibney and directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek tackle the life and legacy of Tiger Woods in a four-hour HBO documentary.

Tiger, HBO's two-part documentary focusing on the rise and fall and rise of Tiger Woods, begins with the golfer's father, Earl, speaking at the 1996 Haskins Collegiate Award Banquet. With his son sitting near him on the dais looking vaguely embarrassed, Earl breaks into one of the bouts of hyperbole that made him such a beloved interview subject during Tiger's peak. "He'll transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism that has never been known before. The world would be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and his presence," Earl declares.

Decades later, it's a comment that's most intriguing because Earl was arguably correct — which still doesn't make it a great place for directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek (and executive producer Alex Gibney) to start. Launching the documentary with that speech turns it into a thesis statement of sorts, one that the directors are frustratingly unable to follow up on. Boosted by great golfing and behind-the-scenes footage, plus a few memorable interviews, Tiger surely proves that Woods transcended his sport, but a bigger-picture contextualizing of his stardom, and of the man himself, proves beyond the documentary's reach.

Without quite articulating it, Heineman and Hamachek have divided the documentary into two thematic chapters, essentially "Tiger Woods: The Legend" and "Tiger Woods: The Man." The first night, at 90 minutes, looks at Earl Woods and how he built Tiger into the world's best golfer, from those familiar scenes of the two-year-old on The Mike Douglas Show to his amateur and NCAA titles to his dominant first Masters win to Earl's death in 2006. There's some respect here for the success Earl had in fulfilling his life's mission and the obstacles he and his son had to overcome, especially when it comes to race. But from the pressures he put on young Tiger to his own infidelities, the doc is reasonably damning when it comes to the way Earl shaped Tiger's humanity.

That, of course, becomes the crux of the slightly longer second night. Tiger, having reached every imaginable pinnacle in his sport and having positioned himself as one of the most beloved figures in the world, complete with a perfect marriage, begins to fall apart in a maelstrom of grief, sex addiction and the physical toll of a body pushed beyond every imaginable limit. But — this isn't a spoiler, because for heaven's sake everything in Tiger Woods' life has been front-page news since he was 18 — after hitting rock bottom, Tiger Woods came back. And isn't that nice?

With the possible exception of a tiny, bland interview in the second episode that may or may not have been exclusive here (I'm truly not sure and nobody's boasting about it), Woods did not participate in Tiger, which uses Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian's biography as a resource. His absence isn't inherently crippling. ESPN's The Last Dance capitalized heavily on Michael Jordan's on-camera presence and it's hard to imagine that documentary existing, at least in its 10-part form, without him. At the same time, Jordan's control over both the narrative and much of its footage makes it his documentary as much as that of director Jason Hehir.

The problem is that, especially in that second episode, Heineman and Hamachek have decided to treat Woods as a tragic Shakespearean figure — or maybe more of a Fitzgeraldian figure, since Shakespeare's doomed kings rarely enjoyed Tiger's triumphant recovery, which the filmmakers accept here as an "end." It's notable that by waiting a few months, Heineman and Hamachek could have had a more resonant conclusion to the documentary — one tying into the paternal affection of Earl's opening speech — in Tiger's recent tournament pairing with his own son. But when you decide to do a hagiography of a life in progress, you're inherently accepting the conclusion of the moment, not the conclusion of the story.

HBO is saying that Tiger contains interviews with "those who know Tiger best," a claim that is empirically incorrect. Not having Tiger is one thing, and you can easily imagine why Tiger wouldn't want to go on-camera in a documentary so salaciously focused on his decade-long downfall. But you can sense Tiger putting the squeeze on many of the people who actually know him best. In the second episode, John Grohman, a Woods family friend, recounts how in their respective philandering both he and Earl were bad relationship role models for Tiger; he immediately looks guilty and apologetic, remarking, "Shit. He's not gonna like this shit at all."

Nobody else expresses a similar sentiment because almost nobody else in the documentary seems to have any sort of current relationship with Tiger. From his teenage girlfriend Dina Parr to his former caddie Steve Williams, there are interview subjects whose commentary eventually reaches a "And I haven't talked to him since" point.

Parr, who contributes some wonderful footage of a goofy teenage Tiger, doubtlessly knew him well 25 years ago. She doesn't know him at all now. Williams knew Tiger up-close, but it was during a specific window of time and one that ended a decade ago. Instead of Mark O'Meara, who has always been described as one of Tiger's best friends on the tour, we get Mark's wife Alicia. Instead of Woods' career-long rival-and-friend Phil Mickelson, we get Nick Faldo. It isn't like Mickelson definitely has insight into Tiger, but Faldo certainly does not. Instead of Elin Nordegren, who was married to Tiger for six years, we get Rachel Uchitel, the most prominent of his mistresses.

Uchitel's sit-down with the directors is a big selling point for Tiger and she says saucy and vaguely gross things like, "I remember thinking, with him, 'How am I ever gonna be with a mere mortal again?' So many people put him on such a pedestal, and here he was in my bed, and he was 'my Tiger.'" That'll get headlines, but at most, Uchitel can give tawdry details about a tiny portion of Tiger's life. One of the points made several times here is that Tiger was both a serial cheater and a serial romantic, professing love to multiple mistresses. We're being asked to put a premium on Uchitel's presence exclusively because she's present.

So you have no Tiger Woods and you have only a questionably relevant grouping of people who know Woods somewhat, plus one armchair-analyzing journalist after another. And so maybe the point is that nobody actually knows Woods best because he's an enigma?

In that case, maybe a more detached, outsider portrait, rather than a skin-deep character profile, might have been ideal. Unfortunately, there's nobody here from the PGA as an organization, very few people from Nike or any of Woods' corporate interests, nobody from his foundation and charitable interests, astonishingly few other golfers. At almost every turn, you can practically imagine potential interview subjects being warned that their commentary would result in the permanent severing of their ties to the man himself or give him bulletin board material on the course.

The outsider perspective is a tough one to get right, but not impossible; ESPN's recent hour-long Tiger Woods: America's Son, despite a similarly restricted group of interview subjects, does a vastly better job of looking at the impact of Tiger Woods as a phenomenon, especially when it comes to Tiger's ongoing relationship with the Black community. Heineman and Hamachek are terrific filmmakers, but I finished Tiger unsure if this was a story they simply weren't correctly positioned to tell, a story that isn't being told at the right moment or a story with an angle that doesn't quite work.

In golfing terms, it's right around par. Great for a weekend duffer, but for Tiger Woods? It barely makes the cut.

Airs Sunday, January 10, and Sunday, January 17, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.