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In Focus: On HBO, the rise and fall — and return — of Tiger Woods

The golfing great has triumphed on the course and stumbled off of it.

Tiger Woods during the 2019 Masters golf tournament, which he won for the fifth time.
Tiger Woods during the 2019 Masters golf tournament, which he won for the fifth time.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Not many superstars have disproven F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American lives. Tiger Woods, a pioneer in breaking the color barrier in golf and one of the greatest golfers of all time, is one of them.

The opening montage of Matthew Heineman and Matt Hamachek’s thoughtful, engaging, and comprehensive two-part documentary, “Tiger,” eloquently sums up Woods’s first act. The clips include Tiger as a 2-year-old challenging Bob Hope to a putting contest on “The Mike Douglas Show”; footage of a 1996 awards banquet where Tiger’s father tearfully lauds his son — who cringes with embarrassment; intermittent shots of Woods’s triumph at some of the 15 major tournaments he has won; and then a surveillance camera video of Woods, barefoot and with eyes glazed by prescription drugs, in a Florida holding cell after being arrested in 2017 for DUI. In that image he looks like a lost soul, a shattered icon not even worth a cheap joke in a talk-show opening monologue.

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Two years later he would return from the dead and win his fifth Masters Tournament.

Hubris almost caused his downfall. But as Heineman and Hamachek suggest, it might have been a case of hubris by proxy. Woods’s father, Earl, had big ambitions for his son — not just as a golfer but as a savior of mankind and a healer of nations on a par with Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. “He will transcend this game,” Earl says, “and bring to this world a humanitarianism it has never known before.” High expectations indeed, and to achieve them Earl and Tiger’s mother, Kultida, had prepared “the plan,” training their son from infancy not just in the sport but in creating an image for himself and handling the media.

Tiger Woods in 2019, after putting on the green blazer, winning his fifth Masters golf tournament.
Tiger Woods in 2019, after putting on the green blazer, winning his fifth Masters golf tournament.Matt Slocum/Associated Press/file

This program precluded some of the normal things young men might expect growing up. Like girlfriends. After his parents’ furious objections, Woods coldly cut off contact with his first love, Dina Parr, who is one of the film’s dozens of disparate interviews (others include a host of sports journalists, Tiger’s caddy, and his kindergarten teacher). “The Tiger I knew died,” Parr says about this heartbreaking dismissal. “His sweetness was stolen from him. The new Tiger was here, and he was all about golf.”

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His father further distorted his son’s ability to relate to women by his adulterous behavior. Even as a child Tiger would witness Earl’s philandering. His father kept women in an RUV near the golf course when he and Woods were practicing and made no attempt to conceal what he was doing. It made for a complex father-son relationship — Woods was repelled by his father’s unrestrained libido but would later be guilty of such behavior himself.

Despite these challenges Woods tried to establish a normal life. He married Elin Nordegren, in 2004, and they had two children. He repeatedly affirmed that his family was his highest priority. But he was leading a double life, slipping off to Las Vegas with NBA stars Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. There they engaged the sybaritic services of high-priced call girls, a practice which intensified after Woods’s father died, in 2006. That loss opened a void in Woods’s life. He was inconsolable but also felt freed to indulge his impulses.

His needs were not just hedonistic. Many of his extra-marital relationships were romantic as well as sexual. That was the case with Rachel Uchitel, a New York nightclub manager (she tells her side of the story for the first time in the film). Nordegren learned of the affair in 2009, confronted Woods, and a violent argument broke out. Woods drove off and, distracted by the altercation (Nordegren had bashed his SUV with a golf club), crashed into a tree near his home. A few inquiries from tabloids later and after a dozen or so former girlfriends came forward, Woods’s marriage was finished, his reputation ruined, and his career uncertain.

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The scandal did more than destroy Woods’s image. It revealed the inveterate racism and sexism of the media and of society at large as well as the schadenfreude of celebrity culture. Woods, who is of Thai, Chinese, Native American, white, and Black descent, had long refused to identify himself as African American. However, once he transgressed social norms, that was how the media would depict him. They not only targeted him but maligned Uchitel as a homewrecker and Nordegren as a dupe and a gold digger. In a grotesque display of misogyny, paparazzi are seen submitting both women to harassment and abusive comments. Meanwhile, former fans reveled in Woods’s disgrace, and comedians, TV personalities, and self-righteous pundits thrived on it.

Tiger Woods at the 2008 US Open golf championship, which he won despite having a fractured leg.
Tiger Woods at the 2008 US Open golf championship, which he won despite having a fractured leg. Charlie Riedel/AP/file

But Woods’s feats shine through this sordid episode. The film includes gasp-inducing shots of his impossible putts and the sheer determination, courage, and physical endurance displayed in the 2008 US Open, which he won despite playing with a fractured leg. Though maybe not in the way Earl Woods had intended, these are moments of greatness that transcend golf.

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“Tiger” Part I premieres on HBO Jan. 10 at 9 p.m. and Part II on Jan. 17 at 9 p.m. Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/tiger.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.