The Collegian
Saturday, December 10, 2022

Film Fridays: Tiger Woods

<p><em>Graphic by Carissa Gurgul</em></p>

Graphic by Carissa Gurgul

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

Even as Tiger Woods lives on at an aging 45 years old, the endpoint of his story became clear two years ago this May when he improbably won the 2019 Masters Tournament and his 15th, possibly final, major championship. And thank God we knew that ending going into the new Tiger Woods documentary. 

“Tiger,” a three-hour (ish) doc available now on HBO Max in two episodes, is equal parts Tiger as sports god, untouched by mortal men during his prime, and Tiger as tabloid whipping boy, spat on by anyone with a microphone or a byline. That basic premise is known to really anyone who has been alive for the last 20-plus years in America or elsewhere, but “Tiger” the documentary does well to both widen the scope and deepen our understanding of Tiger Woods.

The first half of the film is as much about Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, as it is Tiger himself. It opens with tiny Tiger impressing middle-aged men on late-night television by swinging a golf club more capably at two years old than I could honestly do now at 22 (I still regularly miss the entire ball). Earl reveals on that TV appearance that Tiger first picked up a club at three months old and that Earl has had this plan for him all along — the plan being that Tiger will not only dominate the world of golf, but that he will unite people like Gandhi, or Jesus of Nazareth.

Is it possible that the path that Earl chose for his son is also one that Tiger loved? Did he just love winning? Did he love making his father proud? The answer is probably yes, and yet Tiger remains a fascinating case because of how intensely he was indoctrinated into the world of golf before he was even able to speak. 

Earl is a provocative figure in this way, even as Tiger dismisses his father’s impossible expectations as those of a “proud father.” And what a proud father he was, even as Tiger distanced himself from the ailing Earl a few years before Earl’s death in 2006. Tiger won the Open Championship soon after his father passed and the documentary shows Tiger embracing his longtime caddie, Steve Williams, in a rare moment of vulnerability in front of a crowd that was used to seeing this god’s emotion filtered through electrifying fist pumps and reserved, but confident, interviews.

He wept. We saw. We knew him a little better, as the god cried tears of nectar, filling us up even as he anguished. 

But soon the documentary moves to scandal by introducing one of Tiger’s favorite mistresses, Rachel Uchitel. She coyly ends Part I of the documentary with, “So, what do you want me to talk about?” 

Tiger is a useful lightning rod for everything from racism in America to tabloid celebrity culture to the precipice of fame to drug addiction and mental health. You can trace the story of an incredible swath the last 25 years of American history solely through Tiger Woods, a golfer. 

He blew up a sport and became one of the richest athletes ever. He followed one of America’s favorite arcs: exciting up-and-comer to star to rock bottom to redemption. And the documentary lets all this breathe in a runtime that seems modest just months after we watched 10 hours of Michael Jordan and friends in “The Last Dance.” 

I would’ve gladly sat through 10 hours of “Tiger,” though, and certain segments prove endlessly fascinating, including new-to-me revelations about Tiger seeking out intense military training soon after his father’s death in an effort to feel both alive and outside of himself. The film shows archival footage and dramatizations of Tiger voluntarily getting pummeled by Marines, which it seems contributed to two hairline fractures in his knee in 2008. Tiger won his 14th major championship on that knee, frequently keeling over in pain after tee shots.

And as his body finally started to fail him, so too did his judgment. “Tiger” dives unabashed into Tiger’s many, many infidelities, and it eludes some of the contemporaneous narratives that showed his mistresses as femme fatale golddiggers who tricked Tiger into eventually settling with them for millions. 

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The only mistress we see a new interview with is Uchitel, who finally gets to tell her side of the story, which seems as complicated and messy as anything that’s happened to Tiger in the last decade or so. The way she tells it, she wasn’t just a good time in Vegas. She was someone who Tiger felt he could confide in, someone who helped him sleep when not even prescription drugs could do the job, someone who he invited all the way to Australia, where she finally got caught by the National Enquirer. 

And Uchitel is a window into what the documentary is able to convey through new interviews with family friends, old girlfriends, teachers, sports journalists and his old caddie: Tiger Woods was a really lonely guy. He was and may still be a guy who doesn’t seem to know himself very well; a man who didn’t get much opportunity to express himself unless it was fist-pumping on a golf course. How could he be all things to all people, when he couldn’t even be Tiger Woods with no one else around?

There are no male friends interviewed in the documentary. All the men are either mentors who were closer to Earl than Tiger, or people paid to be around him such as journalists, ad executives and Tiger’s first caddie.

A lot was put on Tiger. A lot was asked of him and still is. The film shows archival interviews with Black fans for their thoughts on what Tiger was doing for golf early on during his rise, and one man says definitively that Tiger will be a great role model for his children.

Pete McDaniel, a Tiger family friend and often a voice of reason in the film, concisely says near the end that Tiger is just a human being. Tiger remains a complicated man and should be no one’s idol, but he is just a man. 

I’m not sure we deserved to cheer Tiger Woods on when he lifted up his son, Charlie, at the 2019 Masters, but Tiger deserved the cheers either way. He continues to be a human being. And that position does not excuse him of his sins, but I hope it provides some perspective for a man whose mugshot — corrupted by prescription painkillers he was taking for a broken back — was blasted on television, where commentators lustfully declared him dead to rights. 

What “Tiger” really does though, is show me how much I still care for this man. He’s the athlete I have the longest relationship with. My father may never forgive him for cheating on his wife (a lot). And it’s been hard for me to cope with rooting for a guy who passed out behind the wheel of his car, endangering the lives of others. But in that same scene, it’s easy to recognize that he’s someone who needed a lot of help and rehabilitation and love too. 

He’s no idol, no Gandhi, no longer a sports god, Tiger remains, forever, someone to root for. 

Contact opinions and columns editor Conner Evans at conner.evans@richmond.edu.

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