Part I of HBO’s two-part Tiger Woods documentary, Tiger, airs this Sunday, promising to be the perfect golf-centric spinoff for everyone who loved reliving Michael Jordan’s glory days in The Last Dance. It’s a fitting tribute to the guy who has been described as “the Michael Jordan of golf” since probably even before he’d won his first major at The Masters in 1997. Even their flagship documentaries follow a similar pattern: the rise, the death of a father, the controversy, the resurgence, the nagging question of whether our hero is actually psychotic in some way, and if maybe that’s what dominance on their level requires.
Yet Tiger Woods isn’t a perfect analogue for Michael Jordan. It’s even possible that the pressure to fulfill that hero athlete archetype contributed to Tiger’s arguably lower lows.
I was a competitive youth golfer myself during Tiger’s rise, so rewatching his child prodigy-Stanford phenom arc comes with a heavy dose of deja vu. I remember thinking, throughout that rise, that Tiger Woods must be the most boring superstar athlete who ever lived — the awkward nasal voice, the halting, guarded delivery, the seeming inability to offer anything but the dryest discussion of golf’s minutia. “Well, uh, I think I’d rate the long iron game about a C+ today, but luckily I had the putter working and uh…”
At the time I was far more partial to John Daly, the chain-smoking Arkansas shitkicker with a mullet and porn ‘stache, who wore hideous shirts, inhaled hot dogs at the turn, and barely took practice swings before knocking 300-yard drives with his goofball whirlybird back swing. Tiger Woods: infallible golf robot from Southern California, was a little harder to love.
With the benefit of hindsight and history, it’s easier to acknowledge: Tiger Woods being kind of a dork is what humanizes him. It also contextualizes some of the pressures that he was under — that he’d been essentially bred for greatness, shoved into a spotlight he probably never wanted in the first place literally since before he could talk. It’s possible to see him as an underdog, but only after the fact. Appearing as a golf phenom on the Mike Douglas Show as a two-year-old, Tiger Woods is as much former child star as he is star athlete. To borrow another sports analogy, Earl Woods had a few things in common with Marv Marinovich, the famously overbearing father of “test tube quarterback” Todd Marinovich.
We always knew Earl Woods was a little nuts, and it’s a credit to Tiger directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek (along with producers Alex Gibney, Sam Pollard, Stacey Offman, Richard Perello, Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict) that they actually find some new and interesting anecdotes in that arena. Unlike Todd Marinovich, whose career sort of flamed out in drug addiction just after he became an NFL first-round draft pick, Tiger Woods really did come to dominate his sport. Watching old footage of Tiger dominating major tournaments by 10 or 15 strokes is irresistible in the same way watching old footage of Jordan in The Last Dance was irresistible. In that way, Earl Woods succeeded where many pushy stage fathers failed.
Yet the constant need to contextualize Tiger’s dominance using other sports illustrates the obvious: that golf isn’t other sports. That Tiger really did manage to transcend golf, in a way no one had before, is his greatest achievement. And yet he was always hamstrung by the fact that he is, deep down, a golfer; master of a sport that the public generally thinks of as being for fat old Republicans who hate their wives and isn’t particularly manly. Tiger relives Nike’s first Tiger Woods commercial, the one in which he flatly declared “there are still courses in the United States that I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin.”
The ad stirred controversy at the time, for so boldly playing the race card and perhaps not being perfectly true on the merits: Tiger Woods probably could’ve played any course he wanted in 1996. But just because it wasn’t 100% true to the letter didn’t mean it wasn’t true in spirit. It would’ve been entirely true for any other black golfer at the time. Just six years before the ad aired, in 1990, Hal W. Thompson, the founder of Shoal Creek Country Club in Birmingham, Alabama, the venue for the 1990 PGA Championship (one of pro golf’s four majors), said “we don’t discriminate in every other area except the blacks.”
That same year, it was reported that 17 other PGA tour sites had all-white memberships (with most probably not quite stupid enough not to admit that they had specifically excluded black members like Thompson did). And hey, what do you know, the year of that controversy was also the same year that the host of the Master’s, Augusta National, invited their first black member. One can probably assume that golf didn’t magically become not racist in the six years between 1990 and 1996.
So the Tiger quote from the Nike commercial was jarring, and might’ve seemed like “playing the race card” or like unnecessary pot-stirring in any other sport, but because it was golf, it was impossible to claim that the spirit of it wasn’t true with any sort of credibility.
Yet the point of it was clearly to position Tiger Woods as some kind of rebel, a cool iconoclast (read: someone who could sell sneakers). Which may have been true, but only by accident of his birth and probably not by virtue of his personality. Woods was a guy who succeeded by listening to his dad, not by telling his dad to f*ck off.
In the context of history, Tiger Woods’ story is a story that’s inextricable from race. It’s the story of having identities foisted upon him. Being white means never having people ask you which race you most identify with or asked to be a mouthpiece for your people.
And how do you come to know yourself when people are constantly telling you who you are from the time you’re two? Even Michael Jordan never had to deal with that, at least not from such a young age. And maybe that gave Tiger just a wisp of an inferiority complex when he was hanging with his other superstar pals. That’s what Tiger seems to suggest, that Tiger Woods’s partying and womanizing was driven partly by the pressure to live up to “superstar athlete,” partly by Freudian issues inherited from his womanizing father, and partly by the usual childhood-stealing fishbowl of early fame (and in that sense, personality-stealing too). Tiger Woods is sort of Michael Jordan plus Michael Jackson plus golf.
Yet one of the key aspects of Michael Jordan is a meticulously maintained public image. We see Tiger’s DUI video and the 911 call after he crashed his SUV, possibly during a fight with his wife over his mistresses, and all the former mistresses coming forward, and we think we’re getting some vivid picture of Tiger Woods’ inner life. Yet unlike The Last Dance, Tiger feels like it’s telling a story that’s still developing. Tiger’s signature comeback triumph, his win at the Master’s at the age of 43 (eclipsing even Jordan, who was 35 when he won his last title), was barely a year and a half ago, in 2019.
After all the back surgeries, the rehab, the claims of sex addiction, the late night monologue punchlines, we hear an announcer in Tiger triumphantly declare, during footage of him teeing off, that Tiger Woods was making “his first start in 301 days!”
301 days? That’s it? After all that talk about “would he even be able to swing a club” and “father time is undefeated,” his longest layoff was less than a year? This was, by the way, just seven months after his famous DUI arrest where he was filmed mumbling incoherently, not knowing what state he was in and with five different drugs in his system, including two opioids and Xanex.
Most people don’t go from rock bottom to competing in professional sports in seven months. And hey, what about those back surgeries, anyway? The film sort of glosses over them, vaguely implying that they may have been caused by years of Tiger’s violent swing, his refusal to acknowledge physical pain, and his brief penchant for training with Navy SEALS after his father’s death. But is it too conspiratorial to wonder, in reference to the guy arrested with multiple opiates in his system who had four back surgeries between 2014 and 2017, whether those two things might be related? He certainly wouldn’t be the first athlete to develop an opiate dependency after an injury (all his knee injuries in 2008, for instance), nor the first person with an opiate dependency to suffer from chronic back issues. None of this cheapens any of his wins; if anything it makes them that much more impressive.
Tiger Woods’s win at the 2019 Masters is one of the greatest sports comebacks of all time, one of the most inspiring performances of an over-40 athlete ever, and the perfect coda to a rise-fall-comeback documentary series like Tiger. Maybe it’s a little too perfect. At the very least, there are enough open questions in it that I can’t help but wish for a part three. Hopefully after another major victory.