“He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been seen before.”
Those were the words spoken at a college golf awards banquet in 1996 by a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, womanizing Black combat Green Beret who'd taken up the ancient, lily-white game many years prior.
His name was Earl Woods, and his son, Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, was about to accept the Fred Haskins Award, the golf equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. It was a powerful, if hyperbolic statement—and a powerful way to lead viewers into Tiger, the new two-part docuseries from directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek (Cartel Land) streaming on HBO Max.
Ultimately, Tiger became arguably the greatest to ever play the sport, amassing fortunes for himself and his fellow professionals and becoming one of the world's most recognizable faces. But he fell short of the grand predictions from his father, a complicated man Tiger would come to emulate in countless ways—and it's not clear from watching the film (and the golfer's career these many years) whether he had interest in living up to those ideals anyway.
Based on the 2018 biography by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict, Tiger tackles a subject far too big for the combined three-hour run time. Still, it chronicles the rise from child prodigy to amateur phenomenon to world-beater with quality insights from fresh voices in the Tiger Woods milieu. It also unpacks puzzling life choices—painful, extensive training with Navy SEALs, soldiering on in competition despite crippling injuries—in the years following Earl's 2006 death.
The filmmakers' treatment of Woods' public crash in the wake of revelations he'd had a dozen or so illicit affairs starts to fall flat; they lean too heavily on the first-ever televised interview with New York party queen Rachel Uchitel, one of Woods' more high-profile -mistresses. Thankfully, they do give weight to the racism that flowed through the media and golf intelligentsia post-scandal, culminating with the shameful finger-wagging in 2010 by Billy Payne, then-chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, which Woods has dominated since his early 20s.
But for 2021, there's too much dashcam video of the star athlete stoned out of his mind on painkillers in advance of his 2017 DUI arrest and not enough deep exploration of Tiger's issues and how they exist in a country that still can't help demonizing a Black athlete when he's down—and lionizing him when he's not.
We think Heineman and Hamachek were aiming for a 360-degree portrait of a man but, perhaps inadvertently, they provide a tortured indictment of the American mass marketing and promise-making machine, sometimes falling themselves into traps they sought to expose.
+ Admirable tackling of a long, complex human arc
– Too much reliance on sensational bits to grab viewers
Directed by Matthew Heineman, Matthew Hamachek
HBO Max, TV-MA, 2 parts; 201 min.