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Tiger Woods documentary is a fascinating character study

The two-part documentary series "Tiger" debuts Sunday night at 9 on HBO.
The two-part documentary series "Tiger" debuts Sunday night at 9 on HBO.Associated Press

When Rachel Uchitel, former mistress of Tiger Woods and featured player in his fall from grace, first appears on screen in the final moments of Part 1 of HBO’s two-part documentary series “Tiger,” which debuts Sunday at 9 p.m., it is a jolt even if you suspect it is coming.

“All right, what do you want me to talk about?” she says wearily, and it would be easy to presume right there that the second part of the documentary will take a turn toward titillation regarding Woods’s infamous sex scandal that cost him his marriage and carefully crafted reputation.

As it turns out, the documentary provides a welcome surprise: “Tiger” never plunges headlong into the salacious, even as no significant detail is spared.

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Rather, “Tiger” — which was inspired by the book by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict, the latter of whom wrote the recent Kraft family paean “The Dynasty” — sparkles as a fascinating character study on Woods and the conditions and culture that shaped him, particularly regarding a childhood spent as a golf science project for a loving but flawed father whose messianic expectations for his son became suffocating.

The documentary opens with Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, revealing his grandest expectations for his son during a speech at the 1996 Haskins Award (for the nation’s top collegiate golfer) banquet. “My heart fills with joy when I realize that this young man is going to help so many people,” says Earl Woods in an eerily matter-of-fact voice. “He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism that has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in because of his existence and his presence.”

No pressure, kid. Hearing that speech, then watching the pressure mount as Tiger grows from a carefree toddler spinning in circles after hitting a tee shot in an old home video to the ruthlessly competitive golf icon (and pitchman) of a generation, you realize it’s a tribute to his mental toughness that his entire world didn’t collapse years before the 2009 car crash outside of his Florida home that set the downward spiral in motion.

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“This is a kid who was on national TV at the age of 2,” said co-director Matthew Hamachek, referring to Woods’s appearance on “The Mike Douglas Show” in October 1978. “And after that, he had a father who basically said he was going to unite humanity and transcend the game and that sort of stuff, and then Nike sort of ran with that messaging.

Tiger Woods became a larger-than-life figure in his prime.
Tiger Woods became a larger-than-life figure in his prime.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“Then the public at large and the media starts to project all of these things on Tiger, what he was supposed to represent, all of these different things to different people, and I think those that knew him when he was younger especially were aware how much that weighed on Tiger and how much pressure it put on him.”

While the Uchitel appearance generated buzz in the lead-up to the premiere, it is a girlfriend from Woods’s teenage days who lends the film grace and gravitas. Dina Parr was Woods’s girlfriend from his junior year in high school through his freshman year at Stanford University. Parr, initially a reluctant participant who had never previously spoken on camera about their relationship, was wary of the weight of Woods’s celebrity years before it hit its crescendo. “I could tell he didn’t know what was coming,” she said of their high school days. “That fame, it scared me.”

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After the documentarians won her trust, she provided them with a treasure trove of videos and photos of her and an often goofy and carefree Woods. Their relationship ended when his parents got wind of some shenanigans. Woods broke up with her with what might as well have been a form letter: “Dina,” Woods wrote, “the reason for writing this letter is to inform you that my parents and myself never want to talk or hear from you again.”

Because Woods did not participate in the documentary — he was asked before production and again near the end — voices from his past were essential in telling the complete and clear story.

“Even though we didn’t have Tiger, we wanted to make as intimate and personal a film as possible,” said co-director Matthew Heineman. “Dina was a huge key to that. Tiger is obviously a complex human being, and we didn’t want to paint him with broad brush strokes. We really wanted to understand him from early on until now. She had unbelievable insight on what his life was like in those formative high school years. That was a big get for us.”

Hamachek said he and Heineman discovered while making the film that so many people who were once in Woods’s orbit remain loyal to him, even if the relationship was no longer existent.

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“To this day, people are just fiercely protective of Tiger,” said Hamachek. “Even the people who sort of had acrimonious splits with him. People you might think wouldn’t necessarily be protective of him really were, because they’d seen so many things written about him and said about him that lacked nuance and complexity.

“Earning these people’s trust and showing them that we were going to make a film that was nuanced and complex and we weren’t going to be the TMZ version of this story, but wasn’t going to be a puff piece either … once they understood what kind of film we were making and we made it clear nuance and context were the priority, they were willing to sign on.”


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.