Read: The neverending story of the Tiger Woods comeback
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.”