The 2022 PGA Championship being moved from Trump National wasn’t the only golf news this weekend. Even in the dead of winter, golf was a big part of the sports conversation because of the debut of the first part of HBO’s new documentary, Tiger.
The 190-minute documentary, directed by Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek, takes a hard look at the gift and curse of being Tiger Woods, and what impact his upbringing has had in his very public highs and lows.
Over 90 minutes, part one takes you through the rise of a golf phenom and sets you up for his eventual fall. Here are my biggest takeaways.
The film literally starts with Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, and often comes back to their relationship. The first sound you hear in the intro is Earl speaking at a 1996 banquet recognizing a then 20-year-old Tiger, and setting an impossibly high standard for his son:
“Please forgive me, but sometimes I get very emotional when I talk about my son.... He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before.... The world will be a better place to live in, by virtue of his existence and his presence.... This is my treasure. Please accept it and use it wisely.”
It goes without saying that’s an unreasonable amount of pressure to put on your child.
Golf over everything
The film makes it clear that golf was the only thing Tiger was allowed to entertain from a young age. How young? Elementary school. Tiger’s kindergarten teacher, Maureen Decker, reveals Woods enjoyed playing other sports, but wasn’t allowed to due to his dad.
“Other teachers said he was a pain in the ass, and I agreed with them,” she said. “He was a definite SOB.”
The film gets great perspective from competitors like Nick Faldo, as well as journalists like Pete McDaniel and Robert Lusetich, but the best sound comes from Tiger’s former caddy Steve Williams. One story he shares about Tiger’s drive to get better involves the time Woods forced his car to stop on a highway so he could get out and work on a hip adjustment in his swing that had just popped into his head.
“Here’s Tiger Woods swinging a golf club on the side of the freeway in Toronto.... He couldn’t wait ’til the next day or ’til he got back to the hotel or wherever,” Williams said. “No one would do that. Just nobody.”
Mickelson mind games
In the film, we learn that the rivalry between Phil Mickelson and Woods was so strong that Tiger’s mom, Kultida Woods, would refer to Phil as “Hefty” instead of his nickname on the tour, “Lefty.”
We also see the pair’s ruthless competitiveness on full display in a retelling of a moment from the final round of the 2001 Masters, when they were in the same pairing and Woods was trying to complete the “Tiger slam.” Mickelson hit a great shot with a driver, and Woods answered by hitting a longer shot — with a 3-wood.
“I could sort of sense that Mickelson was feeling a bit dejected,” Williams remembers. “He’s just hit the best drive that he can, and then Tiger’s hit a 3-wood and whipped it by him.
“And then Phil says to Tiger, ‘Do you always hit your 3-wood that long? And Tiger says, ‘Further. Normally further than that.’ It’s amazing the little games within the game Tiger would play. That shot just deflated Phil’s ego, and he couldn’t bounce back.”
Dina Parr is the runner-up for best interview subject through the first 90 minutes. She was Tiger’s first girlfriend, and gives anecdotal evidence about what he was like as a youngster. She claims Tiger’s parents weren’t big fans of her as she was a distraction from golf. When in college, Tiger lied to his parents about spending the night at Parr’s house.
“Tida and Earl, they were furious,” says Earl’s friend, Joe Grohman, a reoccurring figure in the film.
Next thing you know, Parr received a letter from Tiger ending their three-year relationship. It began, “Dina, the reason for writing this letter is to inform you my parents and myself never want to talk or hear from you again.”
The last sentence of the letter read, “I know this is sudden and a surprise, but it is in my opinion much warranted. Sincerely, Tiger.”
Not only does she speak about the letter — she reads it aloud on camera.
“I play it over and over in my mind,” Parr says. “It was like a death and I had to treat it like a death.
“His sweetness was stolen from him.”
A father’s infidelity
Parr and Grohman fill in the blanks on another widely known but hazy storyline — Tiger’s father’s infidelity. Parr describes a time when Tiger called from a summer travel tournament to tell her that Earl was cheating on his wife.
“Any child having to witness that, it’s just not right,” she says. “It made a huge impact on his life.”
That’s not even the first time in the documentary that Earl’s extramarital affairs are broached. In the scene prior, Grohman describes how Earl used to invite women back to a Winnebago he had parked by the 18th green at Navy Golf Course, even while Tiger was present and on the course.
“Did [Tiger] still idolize and love him? Absolutely. But it changed,” says Grohman, who admits he too was part of the problem and also cheating on his wife at the time.
Grohman struggles to stay composed on camera, and apologizes both for his own role in things and for revealing the dirty secrets. “Sorry, champ,” he says through tears. “Sorry.”
A big part of the media and marketing narrative early on in his career, Tiger’s race is a central storyline in the film. In his inaugural Nike commercial, the voiceover read, “There are still courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play because of the colour of my skin.”
After receiving racial threats while winning the 1997 Masters, he self-identified his race as “Cablinasian” on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Although to that point it wasn’t a commonly used word, he made the term up to encompass Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian.
The film doesn’t include an interview with Woods, but his voice is included throughout via archival footage and past interviews. One of the best soundbites is when Tiger admits, “I guess there’s one thing I really do miss — a sense of privacy.”
He eventually went to the extreme to get that privacy by learning how to scuba dive.
“That to me was odd,” Amber Lauria, a friend of Tiger’s and the niece of World Golf Hall of Famer Mark O’Meara. “He said to me, ‘The fishies don’t know who I am down there.’ I thought there was so much truth in that statement, so much sadness in that statement. He loved the silence and the peace that he could find in the bottom of the ocean. He could just be.”
The closing scene of the first 90-minute segment of the documentary features Rachel Uchitel walking in and sitting down for an interview.
Uchitel came to prominence after Tiger’s 2009 car crash outside his Florida home, when it was revealed she was one of his mistresses. A great get for the filmmakers, Uchitel granted an over seven-hour interview, the first one that was shot for the film.
“Okay, so what do you want me to talk about?” she wonders directly to the camera as part one of the documentary ends.
We’ll have to wait for part two for Uchitel’s first-ever in-depth interview.