Fresh off the success of ESPN’s 10-episode Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance” this past spring, I was pumped when I heard that HBO would be releasing a similar in-depth look at another of sports’ most fascinating figures in 2021 — a once young phenom named Eldrick “Tiger” Woods who revolutionized golf and changed the way we viewed celebrity athletes through his meteoric rise and ultimately disappointing fall. There may not have been any involvement on his part unlike Jordan with “Dance”, but a sizzling trailer still had me hooked.
Yet much like the legendary career “Tiger” attempts to cover in its all-too-short 3-hours, it mostly works its magic in early stages and hits a snag once its stardom suppresses the sport.
Directed by Matthew Heineman and Matt Hamachek, “Tiger” begins with an exploration of Woods as a star poised to take the world by storm — showcasing his skills on late night TV at the age of two and going on to completely dominate the sport following his Masters victory in 1997 at the age of 21. Interspersed between commentary from writers and media personalities who still struggle to process how someone so young could be so ridiculously consistent at such a relentless mental competition, this segment mainly analyzes the complex dynamic between Tiger and his father Earl, a former Green Beret who was responsible for molding the man into the calculated machine of an athlete — and person — he would become during formative years.
Probing this single relationship is where “Tiger” vibrates at its best frequency, cut well with archival footage that illustrate the mental games and psychological tactics Earl would use to make Woods impervious to external pressure and estranged him from having a normal childhood as a result.
Beyond just sharing his outsider perspective into how many hours of training and Zenlike focus it took for Woods to become the savior figure his father genuinely believed him to be, an interview with family friend Joe Grohman likewise reasons that Tiger witnessing Earl’s own extramarital encounters may have been the impetus for his later infidelities — a fact I hadn’t known and does look rather condemnatory once it gets revealed.
Irrespective of whether you’ve ever swung a club or not, anyone gripped with learning how successful people become such could be easily raptured in these first 90 minutes. Several near pornographic montages, featuring Woods’ prowess on the course, growing sponsorship list and eventual deification by the public in the early 2000s, are incredible to watch, and even when it attempts to grapple with the unfortunate racial tensions that underscored his arrival and initial public perception makes for a pretty captivating look into golf’s most recognizable name.
Where “Tiger” begins to falter comes in the second part released this past Sunday, starting with an interview from Rachel Uchitel — one of many women revealed to have had an affair with Woods — and diving much deeper into the soap opera-driven elements of Tiger’s story than a self-supposed sports story should go.
Yes, this may have been her first time speaking on camera openly and was sure to draw more eyeballs with than without her, but this singular perspective offers very little into who Tiger might have actually been during this part of his life — especially given that others interviewed claim that he became so good at suppressing whatever emotions he did possess that in the end no one truly understood who he was. Had more women been involved in this denunciation, the argument it made would have been a bit more convincing.
Once the documentary launches into the National Enquirer story that led to Woods’ very public divorce and dozens of women are revealed to be mere items on his increasingly long “to-do” list, any genuine investment in the game is divulged from the narrative — instead resorting to uncomfortably-long portions of police-cam footage from his 2017 arrest and other sensationalistic elements that would feel more at home on late-night TMZ screenings.
While I by no means excuse Tiger’s behavior and recognize that his failures as a husband and human being are a massive part of the story, this part dragged and felt unnecessary long, especially when treated to at least 10 minutes of an inebriated man being booked by law enforcement. Anyone could look up these segments in their own spare time and still understand the point.
Perhaps my biggest issue came from the fact that I constantly found myself wanting more on those individual moments that cemented his greatness on the course in the first place — particularly from others who played alongside him for years and seemingly recognize just how unbelievable he truly was. Compared to the “Last Dance” and its careful weaving of conversations with numerous former players that crossed paths with Jordan in his iconic moments, we don’t really gain much ground-level detail into classic Tiger stories beyond a few interviews with Nick Faldo, Rocco Mediate and former caddie Steve Williams — the last of whom clearly has lingering issues with Woods following his firing and obviously has more recency bias towards criticizing the golfer’s time away from the sport.
Are Tiger’s relationships with fellow players truly that much better since his renaissance that no one would volunteer to speak out about how fierce of a competitor — and seemingly gigantic asshole — he was before the fall? Or does the moral code of a “gentlemen’s game” still apply when it comes to deciding whether or not put a realistic lens on sports’ most scrutinized figure? Either way, the film doesn’t always seem interested in examining his game but rather with the relationships that mar his legacy.
Though the closing moments of the film show Woods’ triumphant return to respect upon his victory at the 2019 Masters, I couldn’t help but feel a bit robbed in terms of what we could have had with a longer and more comprehensive “Tiger”. A perfect world — and genuine sports piece — would ride the wave of Woods’ career with the same power its subject possessed on the course for many years — stopping at each specific moment and touching upon why this one guy was that much better than every other guy who’s ever played.
His career may not be over quite yet, but for now it seems we’ll need to wait until he hopefully releases his own side one day — and until then, much like the career it examines, we’ll be left wondering what could have been.