HBO documentary on Tiger Woods finishes with an underwhelming feeling despite noble intentions

Tiger only manages a perfunctory portrait of a champion, who went through the beats of being a disgraced celebrity, to charting a phenomenal (and improbable) comeback.

Tatsam Mukherjee January 19, 2021 14:00:39 IST
HBO documentary on Tiger Woods finishes with an underwhelming feeling despite noble intentions

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It's probably a testament to the high standards in non-fiction documentaries (especially in sports) in the last decade, that once the dust settles down after the rousing final moments of the two-part HBO Sports documentary, Tiger, there's a niggling underwhelming feeling.

In the era of Formula One: Drive to Survive and The Last Dance, one is accustomed to the way these documentaries unfurl. Directed by Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek (of The Cartel Land fame), Tiger goes about its job with precision. As one would expect, it digs up archival footage from Tiger Woods' early years, interviews close friends and collaborators, traces the journey of a prodigy who was filling golf courses with murmurs of 'greatest of all time' even as a teenager, investigates his equation with his father, his partner from high school, the works. And yet, as we go through Woods' entire arc of a genius, who bought into the lies of fame and celebrity, there's little that we didn't already know.

On a spectrum of ESPN's stellar 7.5-hour investigative documentary, OJ: Made In America and a 60 Minutes episode on a celebrity scandal, Tiger leans towards the latter. Despite the noble intentions, Heineman and Hamachek's documentary only manages a perfunctory portrait of a champion, who went through the beats of being a disgraced celebrity, to charting a phenomenal (and improbable) comeback.

HBO documentary on Tiger Woods finishes with an underwhelming feeling despite noble intentions

However, it all begins on an explosive note. Tiger Woods' father, Earl, can be seen speaking to an audience, about his prodigious son. Earl, a veteran of the Vietnam war, cannot hold back his tears, as he repeatedly apologises to the people, saying he 'gets emotional' each time he needs to talk about his son. Tiger, sitting next to him, looks on with a stone-cold intensity, and the documentary cuts to Tiger Woods in a holding cell with handcuffs, as his father's words ringing in the background. It's a gorgeous bit of juxtaposition, one that announces the father-son duo's utopian ambition, and how it eventually turned out.

Woods was barely two, when father Earl was parading him into talk shows, selling his 'enthusiasm' in golf. Audiences were amused to see a boy walk onto sets with wooden clubs nearly as tall as him, and Earl slowly began sculpting a larger-than-life legend around him. An obsessive parent living his dreams through his son, while explaining a hole in Woods' life during his later career, while interesting isn't really an earth-shattering revelation. The documentary links Earl's unfaithful ways to Tiger's many sexual escapades, almost establishing as a simple cause and effect. What the documentary doesn't investigate further is the strained dynamic between the father and son, in the later years. Save for a passive-aggressive statement given by father Earl (where he mentions that his son is 'grown up and doesn't need me anymore') to a TV channel, the tension swept under the carpet.

HBO documentary on Tiger Woods finishes with an underwhelming feeling despite noble intentions

Great documentaries read between the lines. Tiger seems satisfied with running a series of news flashes, many of which we already remember from a decade ago. The closest it comes to offering a new insight, is when the documentary engages with the forces that were intently looking on at Tiger Woods for "dirt".

It speaks to a former editor of The National Enquirer, who says they were looking for chinks in the armour of the most squeaky-clean sportsperson in the world, Tiger Woods. While going on to become a darling for endorsement deals, including a $100 million contract with Nike after his first Masters win, it looks at these publications, who dedicate a considerable amount of resources to "bring down" America's sweethearts. 

The documentary poses the question - whether the 'scandal' should affect Tiger's reputation as a sportsperson at all? The world imprisoned Woods in the mould of a 'role model' without giving him a say in it. Woods never really asked for the pedestal, even though he did work round the clock to preserve his 'clean image'. It's interesting how a VIP host describes Woods' reckless ways with adultery, almost as if he was 'untouchable'. Woods is hardly the first celebrity to actually believe he was wielding all the power. What does it do someone? That money, power and access to 'powerful' friends? Someone says an unwritten rule about Las Vegas is how people 'leave their morals at the airport and pick it up on their way back'.

The duality of Woods' fame is interesting: he would go to Vegas to disappear in a crowd. At the same time, he would use his power and influence to party with women he deemed attractive. His plan was simple, he would tell the girls he was Tiger Woods. However, none of this is new for a world-renowned athlete. Woods' public humiliation took place a few years before the #MeToo movement. How do these actions look in retrospect? The documentary never prods beyond the 'affairs of Tiger Woods'. How did the power dynamics in these 'relationships' look? 

HBO documentary on Tiger Woods finishes with an underwhelming feeling despite noble intentions

Woods remains a cipher by the end of the documentary: a man training with the Navy SEALS, probably as some way of reliving the 'tough' discipline he had to endure, what seems like a borderline abusive childhood. Earl would constantly play mind games with his son on the golf course, something he said was so that Tiger could learn to fade everything out during the critical moments. Do the ends justify the means? There are a few friends who claim to have been 'cut out' of Tiger's life, after the ill-fated car crash in 2009. 

Woods' public humiliation reminded me of something Dave Chappelle said during his episode on Inside The Actor's Studio. Talking about his co-star Martin Lawrence, Chappelle mentioned an 'episode' that Lawrence had. "The worst thing you could call them (celebrities) is 'crazy'. You don't understand them, so they're crazy. What is a guy as tough as Martin Lawrence doing waving a gun on the road screaming "They're trying to kill me!". A weak person wouldn't survive this. Maybe, it's the environment in Hollywood that's a little sick." What's the environment in a superstar athlete's jet-setting lifestyle? And are the fans ever in a position to judge them purely by their worst moment in public? How much effort goes into making it look like so effortless.

The documentary routinely mentions ex-wife, Elin Nordegern, especially in the second part, but we never really get a sense of their marriage or her as a person. Apart from the precious little we already know through the only interview she did after the 'scandal' broke. One wonders whether it was Woods' attempts to paint a picture of marital bliss, that made the whole thing even worse. 

Tiger briefly touches upon how Nike exploited Woods' identity as a 'black' athlete, and immediately follows it up with a talk show appearance where he called himself 'Cablinasian' (a mix of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian), something the African-American community reacted to as Tiger's attempts to distance himself from being labelled a 'black man', much to their disappointment. But that's probably the point of that one fleeting mention - people's expectation from Tiger Woods versus Woods' own moral compass vs Woods' self-worth according to a scorecard. While it glazes over his 'redemption' story through the better part of 2011-2019, it tells us that he's become a far more relaxed person on tour. Woods can be seen sharing a laugh with other players. Is he a 'better' man? Has he 'changed'?

The documentary ends with a simple question — does it matter?

(All images from the documentary's trailer)

Tiger is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar. Watch the trailer here —

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