The Emotional Miseducation of Tiger Woods

A new HBO documentary zeroes in on the immense psychological toll it took for the legendary golfer to go from prodigy to phenom.

Portrait of golfer Tiger Woods with his father Earl Woods in 1992.
David Strick / Redux

“I might be sorta like a Michael Jordan in basketball,” a teenage Tiger Woods says during a 1990 interview featured in a new documentary on the legendary American golfer. Moments before, Woods suggested he could one day overshadow the veteran player Jack Nicklaus: “I might be even bigger than him—to the Blacks.” Such brazen statements pepper most sports documentaries, and HBO’s Tiger incorporates many hallmarks of the genre. We hear the young Woods predict his impending reign. In contemporary interviews, cultural commentators, journalists, and the athlete’s peers reflect on his decades of greatness. Clips of the prodigy holding a club in his unsteady hand give way to footage of him striding through—and dominating—verdant golf courses around the world. The ascent is clear: An uncertain child has become this story’s hero.

Where Tiger differs from many sports docs, including last year’s ESPN series about Jordan, is in its candid and sometimes wrenching portrayal of its subject’s emotional life. Directed by Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek, the two-part production draws primarily from the 2018 biography of the same name by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict. (The second part airs this weekend.) Woods participated in neither the book nor the film, and his distance from both projects lends them an unexpected intimacy. Sports documentaries, especially those featuring access to their athlete protagonists, tend to emphasize their skill and talent to the exclusion of their interiority. For men in particular, that can mean focusing almost entirely on mental and physical toughness. The documentaries become exercises not just in self-promotion but also in masculine self-mythology. Weakness in all its forms is just another hurdle to quickly overcome. The only acceptable conclusion is excellence.

But unlike The Last Dance, which steers away from discussions of unflattering family dynamics, Tiger goes where it wants. While the film spends ample time revisiting its subject’s career highlights, it does its most revelatory work by zeroing in on the immense psychological toll it took for Eldrick Woods the prodigy to become Tiger, the phenom. Throughout the documentary, archival audio of Tiger’s late father, Earl Woods, most clearly illustrates the pressures placed on the young golfer. Before the interview in which Tiger Woods compares himself to Jordan, for example, we hear Earl Woods explaining the monumental task he’s assigned to his son: “The world is ready for a nonwhite golfer to be successful,” Earl announces. “I have availed Tiger of this, and he takes that responsibility seriously.” That the film begins and ends with the voice of the elder Woods is no coincidence.

Interviews with family friends and colleagues speak to Tiger’s difficulty carrying this responsibility, especially in his youth. They note that Earl repeatedly cited Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela as the kinds of unifying figures whose level of influence his son would one day achieve. Through these anecdotes and archival commentary from the ’90s, the film charts the development of not just a world-class athlete but also a troubled man, one who never got the chance to be a regular boy or to express himself openly. “When this thing happened, I thought, Well, this is wonderful for golf,” one anchor says of Tiger’s massive advertising deal with Nike, in which he was pitched as the sport’s Black future. “But I wonder how great this is for just a 21-year-old kid. The bar is now way up here.”

Through the lens of these emotional burdens, the standard beats of the Tiger Woods story take on more complexity, particularly when it comes to race. In 1997, Woods appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and told the host that he calls himself “Cablinasian,” eliciting disappointed, and sometimes vitriolic, responses from Black Americans who’d become invested in him. (Woods's mother was born in Thailand, and he has mixed ancestry via both of his parents.) But in its dissection of Tiger’s strained relationship with Earl, the film opens up another interpretation of the golfer’s apparent discomfort with his Blackness: Of course a 21-year-old denied most socialization, including with his Black family members, didn’t have many venues to learn about Black culture or about the history of race in America. More pointedly, viewers can understand how a young man might unconsciously resist his father’s demand that he single-handedly change the sports world and heal America’s racial wounds.

In a way, many of Tiger’s storylines still fit the standard narrative for superstar athletes. Acknowledging intense pressure, both public and private, can heighten viewers’ appreciation of the subject’s accomplishments. Yet Tiger’s most compelling moments shed light not on what its protagonist did, but on what he might have felt. One such memorable scene features the PGA director Joe Grohman, who was close to the Woods family. In an interview, Grohman admits that his own sexual indiscretions, and Earl’s, had a devastating influence on Tiger as a youth: “This is a tough one,” Grohman says with a sigh before looking away from the camera: “Shit. He’s not gonna like this shit at all … For a long time, me and Earl were the biggest male figures in his life, the two closest to him. And here I am, chasing skirts and bringing ’em to the course, and he’s seeing this. To have that kinda access to this child’s development and expose him to that, it’s just—yeah, I mean, yeah. Sorry, champ. Sorry.”

Throughout the film, other interviewees reflect on the emotional hardships that Tiger faced as an adult, too. Some of the women who’ve known Tiger best complicate the public image of him. They reiterate how much he idolized Earl and how immensely Earl’s philandering hurt his son. They remember how fragile Tiger was underneath the hardened exterior that he (and his father) presented to the world. In one scene, Tiger’s high-school girlfriend revisits the dispassionate breakup letter he wrote her after his parents insisted the relationship was a distraction from golf. “His sweetness was stolen,” she says. In another, a childhood friend recalls Tiger becoming intensely interested in scuba diving and explaining that he was drawn to it because “the fishies don’t know who I am down there.”

If you’ve followed Woods’s career closely, Tiger doesn’t offer a ton of new material—it revisits storylines that have been reported during his time as a public figure. The documentary’s second half, which airs on Sunday, traces the sex scandal that brought Tiger’s career to a halt in 2009, and his slow climb back in the years since. But Tiger isn’t a redemption narrative so much as it is an emotional biopsy. The lurid details of Tiger’s many affairs while married to Elin Nordegren aren’t all that interesting. Still, there’s something uniquely affecting about hearing from Rachel Uchitel, the woman at the center of the first widely reported story about Tiger’s infidelity. Uchitel hadn’t spoken publicly about the affair before; in her interview, she doesn’t dwell on their sexual relationship, instead painting a portrait of a man caged in by the life that had been chosen for him decades prior. “He was so scared of the real Tiger not matching up to the Tiger that everybody thinks he is,” she recalls. How could anyone match up to that?