The Tiger Conundrum

What to make of the complex, controversial golfing legend

By Eric Wills | January 23, 2021

Divining the interior life of a public figure is always a tricky business, especially when that public figure is a famously private person. If you’re making a film about Tiger Woods, for example, you can gather the footage documenting the golfer’s singular journey through the glossy heights and tawdry recesses of American celebrity: the home videos from the unguarded early years, the displays of golfing dominance from the Masters and St. Andrews, the seedy surveillance tapes from the National Enquirer and dash-cam arrest clips courtesy of the Jupiter, Florida, police department. You can uncover the high school girlfriends and former friends of the family—let us not forget the mistresses—who want to speak their truth to the camera. But how close can you get to the emotional and psychological center of a man who never let the mask slip, who spent his formative years crafting a public image in the service of corporate profits?

Tiger, a two-part documentary aired by HBO and directed by Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek (the second part ran this past Sunday) lays out much of what we already know. How Earl Woods shaped his son’s career, molding Tiger the prodigy into Tiger the red-shirted assassin. How his global dominance came undone when his philandering and opioid addiction became famously public. And how he somehow pieced his life back together and with a fused spine won the 2019 Masters in a story of sporting redemption unparalleled in its astonishing arc. (Ben Hogan’s nearly dying in a car crash and then coming back to win the 1950 U.S. Open may be astonishing in its own right, but Hogan didn’t overcome the chipping yips.)

A few moments in Tiger do resonate like a flushed three-iron, including the interview with Dina Gravell, Tiger’s first girlfriend. She shared with the filmmakers home videos of a teenage Tiger acting with an unscripted abandon unthinkable to today’s polished high-school Instagrammers: Tiger dressed as Santa Claus, Tiger posing for prom photos, Tiger preening for the camera in a living-room dance party, playing an imaginary saxophone. Dina and Tiger continued to date after he went off to Stanford, but when Tiger’s parents concluded that she was a distraction, the relationship came to a summary end via this missive from the golfer: “The reason for writing this letter is to inform you my parents and myself never want to talk or hear from you again. Reflecting back over this relationship I feel used and manipulated by you and your family. I hope the rest of your life runs well for you.”

In his callous disregard for Gravell, and for anyone who threatened to derail his ambitions, we can discern the beginnings of the rift that would develop between Tiger the person and Tiger the manufactured image. His breakup with the press, which only widened that gulf, dates back to a profile in the April 1997 issue of Esquire, in which the writer, Charlie Pierce, revealed that this kid who Earl Woods prophesized would be more significant than Gandhi, Mandela, and the Buddha was actually an awkward 21-year-old who liked off-color jokes and who was still finding his bearings before the tidal wave of celebrity swept him under.

“Hello, world,” announced the Nike commercial that marked Tiger’s decision to turn pro: “There are still courses in the U.S. I am not allowed to play because of the color of my skin … I’ve heard I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me?” This was the same Tiger who had told a reporter that “the only time I think about race is when the media ask me,” and who would later inform Oprah that he wasn’t African American but Cablinasian, a mix of Caucasian, Black, American Indian, and Asian. Pierce wrote that Tiger had become “the center of a secular cult, the tenets of which hold that something beyond golf is at work here, something that will help redeem golf from its racist past, something that will help redeem America from its racist past, something that will bring a new era of grace and civility upon the land.” It was a myth then, as Pierce rightly discerned, and it remains a myth today.

Is it any surprise that a well-mannered version of Trumpism flourished across the gated country clubs of America? That golf—and Tiger—have a Trump problem? Tiger, Annika Sorenstam, Gary Player—all accepted Presidential Medals of Freedom from the golf-course-developer-cum-POTUS. Jack Nicklaus endorsed him in his race against Biden. Tiger, he of the feckless boilerplate about how we must respect the highest office in the land, has circled the links repeatedly with the former president, who also happens to be a client: Tiger has designed the forthcoming Trump World Golf Dubai. NASCAR has been more woke than the PGA Tour.

Recently, the PGA of America finally began its retreat, announcing that it was moving next year’s PGA Championship away from Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Team Tiger will assuredly remain quiet, unless forced to regurgitate more feckless banalities—it did happen to fire back against Tiger, calling it a “salacious” and “incomplete portrait” of the golfer. Which tells you everything you need to know about how the priorities haven’t much changed over the years in Tigerland: privacy—and profits—still trumps principles.

What’s especially confounding—it’s a conundrum Tiger fails to untangle—is that the golfer himself wasn’t immune to the game’s racist undercurrents. In 2010, Billy Payne, then the chairman of Augusta National, admonished Tiger before his post-scandal return to the tournament: “It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly our kids and our grandkids.” Which was a bit much coming from the green-blazered general of a golf club, built on a former plantation, that had admitted its first Black member just seven years before Tiger won his first Masters. In Tiger, Thomas Bonk, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, and the sportscaster Bryant Gumbel both equate Payne’s comments with a “public whipping.”

The series trots out no shortage of characters who assume positions of moral authority. Neal Boulton, a former editor at the National Enquirer, sounds like a big-game hunter savoring the kill as he recounts how the tabloid took down the golfer: “I think the Tiger Woods story is a big cautionary tale. Be careful about the image you create of yourself. Be careful to live lies.” And here’s Tiffany Masters, a former “VIP host” in Vegas: “I saw a change in him through time. Towards the end there was a sadness about him. Maybe that adrenaline rush had left him and he needed to go to that next level. I do know that he called a madam.”

There’s sympathy to be found in the portrait of Tiger as a kid with paranormal talent, facing outsize expectations, who met the hot glow of celebrity never having developed the necessary emotional maturity to weather its onslaught. If there was a void in Tiger that he was somehow trying to fill, there was also a void in Earl Woods, who would give golf lessons to attractive women and then invite them back to his Winnebago for a cocktail and other extramarital curriculars, as Joe Grohman, an old family friend and golf pro, recounts in the series. And if there was a void in Tiger after the death of his father in 2006, there was also a void in our culture, in those who not only welcomed his fall but invested in it.

On the course, Tiger was a transformative presence, a lightning strike that illuminated the possibilities of the game. He was mesmerizing as an athlete, sui generis in his self-contained and self-assured aesthetic. “When you stand around him there’s something going on that you’re not used to feeling,” says fellow golfer Rocco Mediate. During Tiger’s Masters win two years ago, I was deeply moved, even as I was fully aware of his personal flaws off the course and inability or general unwillingness to trade on his celebrity to promote some higher cause.

Tiger may not help us square those competing realities. But I came away thinking that our gaze should be less focused on the state of his soul, and more on the backdrop that enabled his rise and fall. Tiger doubled down on Michael Jordan’s Republicans-buy-sneakers-too playbook—a pursuit enabled by the hunger for something to fill our void, the void of a hyper-capitalist society marching toward an overdue reckoning. In that respect Tiger is a sporting relic, an emblem of global corporate domination in an age of social uprising (a new generation of athletes have refused to shut up and dribble). He may yet well produce one last thrill on the golf course. And his image may continue to soften. But there will always be a tragic lining to his American story—a tragedy that extends beyond just the man himself.

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