Tiger: Part 1
(USA, 89 min.)
Dir. Matthew Hamacheck, Matthew Heineman
“Ok, so what do you want me to talk about?” asks Rachel Uchitel in the closing seconds of Tiger. She is clearly not keen to participate in this documentary about the rise and fall of Tiger Woods. The frustration, irritation, and unease with which she tersely addresses the camera, however, create a riveting cliffhanger before the next part of the story.
If the first wave of the pandemic gave doc fans a rousing sports saga with the Michael Jordan doc series The Last Dance, then the second wave tees up a tale of Tiger Woods. Tiger, HBO’s two-part documentary about the “Michael Jordan of golf,” offers a compelling study of an athlete who inspired masses of fans and quickly repelled them. Tiger knows the answer to the question that Uchitel asks. Audiences want all the salacious and sordid details about Woods’ downfall. Directors Matthew Hamacheck and Matthew Heineman, however, aren’t going to give up the juice quite so easily. The directors seemingly structure the first part of Tiger to capture the rise of Tiger Woods with the second half presumably chronicling his precipitous fall. (The doc was not available to Canadian press in full prior to its broadcast premiere Jan. 10.)
The first 90 minutes of Tiger are less of a tease to the naughty bits and more of an engrossing overview into the making of an icon. Much like Ezra Edelman’s OJ Simpson doc series OJ: Made in America, Tiger bides its time in getting to the meat of the story. Like OJ, it builds a sturdy backstory that combines the USA’s explosive racial politics, the intoxicating allure of celebrity, and the charismatic star power and awesome talent of a sports icon who captivated audiences.
One shouldn’t be quick to assume, however, that Tiger defines Woods by his transgressions rather than his victories. Hamacheck and Heineman offer a balanced portrait of Woods’ story, which is only fair to him and his career trajectory. The doc is tough on Woods, but it arguably portrays him as a product of circumstance. The first moments of Tiger include an archival clip of Woods on television, barely two years old, showing off his golf skills and winning a putting competition against Bob Hope. He can barely speak, but his father, Earl, happily explains that Tiger could swing a golf club before he could even walk. Through archival footage and new interviews with parties in varying concentric circles around the Woods family, Tiger illuminates how a father shaped a golf prodigy. “He was a mean SOB,” recalls Tiger’s kindergarten teacher candidly when asked about Earl Woods.
Earl Woods is not the villain of Tiger but rather the instigator of major pressure that Woods would carry throughout his professional life. The film chronicles the painstaking and demanding training regime of golf, golf, golf, and more golf that readied Tiger for his assigned calling. One gets the impression that Woods is more the “Manchurian Candidate of golf’ than the “Michael Jordan of golf” as Earl groomed his son to be the best in the sport.
It’s clear that he was successful. Tiger leaves little doubt that Wood shook golf and the sports world seismically when he went pro and played the Masters at 19, winning the tournament the next year and breaking countless records in a sport traditionally dominated by white elitists. Tiger features many of the glorious shots, the powerful drives, and the seemingly inconceivable reads of pitches on greens. It still boggles the mind how Woods could sink one sweet putt after another. Archival interviews see Woods insist that his goal was to be the best. If one measures greatness purely by trophies, endorsements, records, and winning margins, then Tiger Woods certainly was the best.
However, one underlying question of Tiger is the cost of greatness. It asks if one can truly be the best in one’s field if winning comes at the expense of everything else. The greater revelations in Tiger come from Woods’ friends who share with Hamacheck and Heineman details of his parents’ regimental control of his life. His first girlfriend, Dina Parr, details a difficult relationship in which she tried to provide Woods social stability and normalcy. She and other interviewees, however, explain what it’s like to see Woods in “the zone,” a form of Zen-like concentration and focus. Parr tries to make sense of the man she loved while trying to respect—and understand—his total commitment to golf. The film then reveals how Woods’ parents guided him to close off all “distractions,” which in Parr’s case meant ending their relationship with a cold hand-written letter. This sequence portrays Woods as both a cold perfectionist and a product of precise tinkering, calibration, and manipulation.
The question of greatness also becomes connected with Woods’ mixed race identity. Tiger recounts how Woods shook up the sport at a time when some golf courses in the USA still prohibited people of colour from playing. His first victory at the Masters, meanwhile, saw a Black player change the dynamic of the game while conquering a course on the site of a former slave plantation. Hamacheck and Heineman layer the racial tension within the pressure that Woods carried as a young player as he became a symbol with which to break the white establishment.
But other archival clips show Woods’ discomfort with being Black. When Oprah asks Woods if it bothers him when people call him African American, he says it does, offering the term “Cablinasian” to describe his mixed race identity. (Parts Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian.) Like the portrait of OJ in Made in America, Tiger portrays Woods with an uncomfortable and ambivalent relationship with race. Similarly, it asks about the weight and pressure that athletes of colour carry in the spotlight when their achievements, and mistakes, receive greater scrutiny than those of white players. Tiger somewhat moves on from the question of race after chronicling its role in Woods’ ascension to fame, presumably with more to consider when it comes to the golfer’s fall.
There are other bombshells, including some jaw-dropping admissions from Joe Gorhman, a family friend who golfed with Earl and Tiger Woods’ during the athlete’s youth. He recounts things that no child should have ever seen, which add new facets the complex psychology of Tiger Woods as a fragile yet untouchable titan. Woods’ absence, on the other hand, is perhaps inevitable, but Hamacheck and Heineman do their best to tell a mostly fair story through the perspectives of friends and colleagues. The magic is in the cutting—Hamacheck makes his directorial debut here after editing docs like Heineman’s Cartel Land and is among the film’s four editors—as the smartly paced essay uses archival snippets to echo and accentuate the interviews, letting younger versions of Tiger speak volumes. For example, he insists that his father was his best friend and, while that may have been the case, the doc shows few instances of friends in Woods’ life off the fairway.
Part one of Tiger crescendos with Woods’ marriage to Elin Nordegren and emotional triumph on the course following the death of his father. Woods collapses in tears as Earl’s impossibly high standards continue to weigh. This unexpectedly humanizing image of relief provides a brief flicker that suggests Woods briefly found a way to be the best both on the course and off. The back nine of Woods’ story, however, will prove to be another matter, but few works culminate with the subject at such a palpable breaking point.
Part 1 of Tiger is now on Crave. Part 2 airs on Sunday, Jan. 17.