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‘Tiger’ Untangles the Mythos of Tiger Woods—but Only to a Point

HBO’s new documentary sets out to explore the intersection of Woods’s intensely private and uncommonly public lives. While it effectively distinguishes between myth and man in some facets, it succumbs to legend in others.

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The first part of Tiger Woods to appear in his arrest video is his scalp. It’s the focus of the police footage before officers ask him to stand on a stained yellow X and listen to his Miranda rights. Its exposure is jarring; his head should be covered by a hat, because it’s always covered by a hat. But you don’t get to cover up at rock bottom.

“Today is May 29, 2017,” a voice calls out from behind the camera. “I’m officer Fandrey of the Jupiter Police Department. I have arrested and charged Eldrick Tiger Woods with DUI pursuant chapter 316.193 of the Florida state statutes revised.”

If there are any doubts about the remaining will of the man in this clip, they are soon put to rest. Woods has trouble standing up or sitting down without leaning against a wall for support. When asked to describe his hair color, he jokes, “Mostly brown and fading.” At one point the officers request that he submit a urine sample to test for “chemical or controlled substances.” It takes Woods eight seconds just to sit upright in his chair. Before the police can finish explaining that he doesn’t have to get up, Woods interrupts, “How am I going to hold it?”

The mug shot that authorities took of Woods that night was plastered across the national news by morning. Some called it “horrifying”—his eyes all dull and entranced. Others called it “pathetic,” not in the sense that it should evoke pity, but in that someone so big could look so small. If nothing else, he looked tired. Too tired to sit up, too tired to open his eyelids, too tired to care.

How Woods arrived at this point is an object of fascination in the two-part documentary Tiger. The clip itself appears, in abbreviated form, just before the opening credits roll. The film is the second to explore Woods’s career and cultural impact in recent months, following The Undefeated’s release of Tiger Woods: America’s Son in November. Tiger runs over three hours in total, the second half of which will air on HBO Sunday night.

Like other attempts to deconstruct athletes who take on mythological status in the United States—think ESPN’s The Last Dance and the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America—the documentary leverages the benefits in scope and running time afforded by the streaming era to explore the intersection of Woods’s intensely private and uncommonly public lives. The film is at times an immensely intimate portrait of a figure enveloped by the pull and tug of celebrity hero worship, and a culture that projects what it wants from its heroes onto them. In Tiger, we see Woods’s legend came to mean all things to all people—and glimpse how that dynamic affected the man himself.

The first myth the film sets out to dispel is that the prophet was born and not made. Tiger shows the heretical. His father and mother, Earl and Kultida Woods—who met while Earl was serving as a Green Beret in Vietnam—were the prodigy’s first makeup artists, meticulously building the competitor, his image, and his mythos. The early stages of the doc depict Earl grooming his son to perform. The tyke always has a club in hand. A series of anecdotes paint a picture of a childhood singularly focused on achieving greatness: how a kindergarten teacher, at Tiger’s behest, tried (and failed) to convince Earl to let the boy play other sports; how Tiger was so obsessed with mastering his swing as a toddler that he’d turn his head between strokes so that Tida could feed him; how Earl would communicate with Tiger about the game in language befitting of a preschooler (of water hazards: “wawa bad son”).

By the time Tiger was a teenager, Earl had bullied and sparred with his son on the course for years, measures taken to harden him to the pressures of competition at the highest level. When Tiger would map out his putts, Earl would raise his voice and shake the change in his pocket—anything to distract the prodigy at work. Author and reporter Robert Lusetich notes that Earl even leveraged his army connection to arrange sessions with a high-grade psychoanalyst who taught Tiger to hypnotize himself.

As Woods burst onto the PGA Tour and started winning event after event, the mania surrounding him bordered on religious devotion. As Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce, another participant in the film, once said, “the gospel of Tiger” had many a proselyte. It was not enough that he merely won; he had to be 10 steps ahead of his opponents, and 10 times more willing to cut out his competition’s heart. Woods’s dominance was proof of this image, and he came to be seen as a man whose reign was preordained. He did not just beat other golfers; he played a different sport. He was not just capable of going to lengths far exceeding any of his peers—he was those lengths manifest.

In Tiger, we are forced to reconcile this picture with the reality, and how those lengths likely expedited his physical decline toward the end of the aughts. Woods’s forays into faux special ops are framed not only as attempts to confront the legacy of his Green Beret father and escape the drolling purgatory of celebrity, but also as contradictory to his reputation as the most-winning-consumed athlete of our age. How could he be a paragon of commitment on the course if he went to extremes to break his body off it? Woods’s beatdowns at the hands of Navy seals, his parachuting out of airplanes, his grinding workouts meant to bulk his mass far beyond that of any golfer before him—these are portrayed as both indistinguishable from his zenith and causes for his downfall.

While the film questions why such contradictions didn’t seep into Woods’s image sooner, it makes the case that it is unsurprising in the context of his legend. Tiger’s lore left no space for imperfection. Self-destruction must be separate from excellence or else the myth begins to sound too human.

When Tiger is at its best, it unveils how nobody seems to truly know the man. The early portions introduce his high school sweetheart, Dina Gravell, who recounts their young love. She says that even in her teenage years, she could feel the pressures of fame closing in on him. She repeatedly uses the word “sweetness” to describe the disposition of an adolescent Woods untouched by stardom.

After Tiger enrolled at Stanford in 1994 and embarked on the most successful amateur career in golf history, Gravell received a note from him hastily breaking off their relationship. The doc positions it as being dictated by his family. “The part of him I knew would never treat me that way,” Gravell says of the breakup. The film depicts only one note, but in real life there was a second. The first was gruff and brief; the other, sent months later, was more contemplative and expressive. Whether both of these letters had the same author is unclear. The only person who knows for sure has remained unwilling to discuss it.

Steve Williams, Woods’s former caddy, thought he knew Tiger too. For 13 years, he was Tiger’s closest ally on the course. When Woods won the 2006 British Open, in the wake of Earl’s death, he cried into Williams’s arms. “Tiger was the best man at my wedding,” Williams says in the film. But then Woods got hurt and Williams got fired and now he’s left saying how they might “have no communication for the rest of our lives.”

If anyone could really know Tiger, it would seem to be Elin Nordegren. She married him. They had two children together. And then she, and the whole world, found out he had at least 11 mistresses, most of whom claimed to have “loved” him, and some of whom claimed to “still love” him even then. Rachel Uchitel, the first-discovered of his mistresses and the star interview of Tiger, spends most of her appearances discussing the intimacies of their relationship. According to Uchitel, Woods felt that he could “unplug” from outside pressures when they were together and begged her to come to tournaments because he “needed me.” After their affair was found out, the only time they spoke again was when Woods advised Uchitel to “get as much as you can” in a nondisclosure agreement with his lawyers.

The legend that the film is committed to unfurling is one of our own making. Tiger is most compelling when it explores why the public felt and acted so betrayed by Woods’s misdeeds. And despite this, or perhaps because of it, the doc is unable to avoid succumbing to the most American of clichés about race and redemption. Tiger’s greatest strength is the empathy with which it treats its subject. Yet it still falls into some of the traps that it is specifically designed to outrun.

There was a law that stood in Virginia for a number of years called the Racial Integrity Act. Passed in 1924, it outlawed interracial marriages throughout the commonwealth. The sexual proclivities of Black people have long been a fixation of American white supremacy, but this law marked something deeper than simply policing the fault lines of race mixing. It was, if not the first, then one of the most efficient statutes meant to enshrine into official jurisprudence the one-drop rule (a long-held social custom that defined anyone with traceable Black lineage as racially impure). This law did not merely protect against miscegenation. It ensured that the riches of whiteness would remain purely and immovably white. To fortify race, Virginia—and in concert, America—defined it once more. You were either white or you were marked.

When Woods rose to stardom, the terms of this equation still applied. But there was space for exceptions, so long as they came with absolutions. In Tiger, we see an America enthralled with the seemingly contradictory goals of multiculturalism and post-racialism. In the 1990s, the country was in the midst of unrivaled booms in both the economy and the prison population. The decade was marked by a surge in Black family income followed by an equally effectual resegregation of the American education system. It was a time when the visage of the civil rights movement, America’s second reconstruction, was still visible, and yet the inequities that made the movement necessary were reformulated in full.

There was a segment of the population searching for a figure to assure them of the righteousness of this America and feign the aesthetic of diversity. And there was a segment of the population that understood the reality and yearned for a symbol to obscure it. A generational athlete with a Thai mother and Black father who met while the latter served in Vietnam had the potential to buoy both camps. This is vital context that Tiger glances but does not fully explore.

The overwhelming potential of his appeal was no secret to those who constructed Tiger’s myth. “He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before,” Earl says in an excerpt from a speech used in the documentary’s opening scene. The film is quick to subvert the narrative that Tida played a secondary role in shaping her son’s athletic path, but avoids probing her role in developing his racial consciousness: “Tiger has Thai, African, Chinese, American Indian, and European blood,” she once told Sports Illustrated. “He can hold everyone together. He is the Universal Child.”

In its early advertising campaigns, Nike was far more committed to racializing his brand as explicitly Black. One of Woods’s initial commercials pictured him standing beside Black golf luminaries Lee Elder and Charlie Sifford, thanking them for their service. Another featured clips of Woods beneath the text: “There are still courses in the U.S. I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin.” The latter of these ads is discussed briefly in Tiger, but solely through the lens of Nike and its belief in the lucrative nature of the “race card.” Whether Woods ever really believed himself to be all of the things that he meant to so many sections of the public—and how that informs who he is today—is of little interest to the film. It is a shame, for the dueling and contradictory notes between the aesthetics of Black political activism and conciliatory racial ambiguity are crucial to understanding Woods’s legend.

He self-identifies as “Cablinasian” while his sponsor brands him Black; he said that golf’s racism must change only to forgive instance upon instance of anti-Blackness against him. Even now, in this period of awakening and destruction, Woods waited long after his peers to post a statement with the words, “My heart goes out to George Floyd” and “I have always had the utmost respect for our law enforcement,” one after the other. There seems to be, to this day, a fault line between what he represents and who he is. While Tiger effectively questions the mixing of man and myth in other facets of his life, it falls short here.

The end scene to the documentary is, unsurprisingly, Woods’s victory at the 2019 Masters. It was an intoxicatingly cinematic moment: a fallen hero of two back surgeries and an 11-year major title drought triumphing on the same course where he won his first championship. That now-famous clip of Woods hugging his son in celebration—just as he had done with his own father 22 years earlier—is in one of the last shots of the film. It looks like closure; every step from childhood through that mug shot and beyond was leading up to this moment.

But for as much as Tiger shows how pervasively the mania surrounding Woods’s rise and fall was fueled by his myth, it ultimately preserves the sanctity of this final portrait. We don’t know if Tiger won the 2019 Masters because he learned from his mistakes. We don’t know if he has changed. We know that he was good enough to win that day, and that millions of his believers rejoiced in sacrament when he did. To conclude anything further says more about us than him. It imposes a picture; it continues the legend.