The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tiger Woods’s famously guarded persona is HBO documentary’s biggest handicap

“Tiger,” HBO's new Tiger Woods documentary, tells us little that we didn't know already. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

There’s a clip late in HBO’s two-part Tiger Woods documentary in which an on-course golf announcer says: “We often wonder what’s going through his mind. What we wouldn’t give to know his thoughts.”

“Tiger,” the first 90 minutes of which premiere at 9 p.m. Eastern time Sunday on the pay-cable network, seems to wonder right along with that nameless announcer from 2013. Woods declined invitations to participate, according to Richard Deitsch of the Athletic. So while Woods is front and center, his voice is heard almost entirely in clips gleaned from press appearances, at which — as you already know if you have been following for the past 25 or so years — Woods is famously guarded.

So we’re left with an unrevealing portrait of a towering sports figure, the dots connected by people who either have known Woods, worked with or for Woods or covered Woods as members of the media. And that’s fine; it wouldn’t be a documentary without all that. But imagine how enlightening it would have been to see something along the lines of Woods reacting to old clips or interviews shown to him on a tablet as Michael Jordan did in ESPN’s mostly acclaimed Chicago Bulls documentary from last year. Or, really, to see Woods — at this stage of his life, with the wisdom that comes from decades of busy adulthood — react earnestly to anything at all.

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The treasures are few in the film, which is directed by Oscar-nominated documentarians Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek and is based upon a 2018 biography of Woods by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian. Woods’s high school girlfriend, Dina Parr, humanizes the golfer with 1990s-era home video of Woods acting like a goofball teenager and stories of their time together. But she also reveals he “had no life skills” and ended their three-year relationship in a handwritten letter in which Woods said he felt “used and manipulated by you and your family.”

(That letter also is old news, having been obtained and published by E Online in 2009.)

“Tiger” hints but never comes right out and says that Woods’s father and mother ordered him to end his relationship with Parr. Earl Woods looms especially large in the documentary, whose two parts are cleaved into the time in which Tiger’s father was alive and the time after he died in 2006. (Woods’s mother, Kultida, gets a brief mention as a strict disciplinarian but otherwise is not talked about much, though the revelation that she often referred to rival Phil Mickelson as “Hefty” instead of the embraced nickname “Lefty” drew a chuckle.)

Earl Woods was a Vietnam veteran who put a club in Tiger’s hands when the latter was barely a toddler. He taught his son to deal with on-course distractions by jingling his keys in his pocket or talking loudly with others while Tiger was putting. He also was prone to saying outlandish stuff such as this (in 1996, while Tiger still was in college):

“My heart fills with so much joy when I realize that this young man is going to help so many people. He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before. The world will be a better place to live in by virtue of his existence and his presence. This is my treasure. Please accept it and use it wisely.”

As for how Tiger felt about his dad anointing him as the Chosen One, all we get is a clip of a much younger Woods saying, “That’s just a dad speaking.”

The second part of “Tiger,” which airs Jan. 17, deals mainly with Woods’s downfall after his father’s death: his marriage to Elin Nordegren, his very public implosion of that marriage and the injuries that beset him in the previous decade. Again, this is well-trod ground. Much time is spent on Woods’s training with Navy SEALs after his father’s death, the subject of a Wright Thompson ESPN story from 2016. (Thompson is a talking head in the documentary.) Even more time is spent on the tabloid fallout after Woods’s infidelities came to light. That leaves little time for Woods’s on-course redemption at the 2019 Masters, where he won his 15th major title: It’s shoehorned into the last 10 minutes of a documentary that spans three hours and offers little in the way of revelation.