Why HBO’s Tiger documentary, premiering Sunday, is worth your time

It’s a safe bet that Tiger Woods won’t be gathering the family around the big-screen TV on Sunday evening to watch the premiere of HBO’s documentary “Tiger,” at 9 p.m. ET.

If you’re seeking to relive Tiger’s greatest moments, they’re all there but this isn’t going to break new ground on revealing the secrets of his success. What it does – and quite well at times – is give new insight into Tiger’s psychological makeup and the many sacrifices he made to become a major champion 15 times over.

The first part of the two-part series showcases his rise from child prodigy to amateur sensation to world beater. There’s compelling video that I’d never seen before, especially of Tiger playing with his dad, Earl. It’s been detailed before how Earl used to play all sorts of mind games with Tiger to make him mentally sharp. To actually see his dad shake his pocket and hear jingling change as Tiger tries to putt was very cool. But it’s really the off-the-course videos that are most compelling. We see video of Tiger dressed as Santa, dancing at a party and getting ready for prom and it provided a window into a less familiar side of Tiger.

There are interviews with golf luminaries such as Nick Faldo and insight from writers such as Pete McDaniel and Robert Lusetich, who chronicled Tiger’s career extensively. Steve Williams tells a good story I’d never heard before about how Tiger made him pull over and stop the car on the side of a road in Toronto once so he could swing a club and work on a swing thought. I’d say the directors checked most of the boxes, although I could’ve done without featuring HBO’s Bryant Gumbel so much or hearing from mainstream media types such as Brit Hume and Larry King. But Faldo, Stevie and all the other voices don’t provide anything profound.

What sets this documentary apart – so far anyway – are the interviews with non-golf figures in his life. We hear from Tiger’s kindergarten teacher, who relays a story about how Tiger wanted to play baseball and other sports, but Earl would have none of it. He had a dream for his son and it revolved around golf. We meet Tiger’s first girlfriend, Dina Parr, who shares their heartbreaking breakup after a three-year relationship. Having read the Tiger biography of the same name by Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian, which the documentary is based upon, I was familiar with the story about how Tiger dumped her via an impersonal and cold-blooded letter, but actually seeing the letter that she’s kept all these years made a stronger impact.

“I play it over and over in my mind,” Parr says in the documentary. “It was like a death and I had to treat it like a death.”

Parr places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Tiger’s parents, who she believes forced Tiger to break up with her. According to the documentary, Tiger came home from Stanford early to be with her without telling them and when he was caught in a lie Earl and Tida lost it. Supporting this account is another former friend of the Woods family, Joe Grohman, who Tiger called for help.

“His sweetness was stolen from him,” Parr concludes.

In an early instance confirming that the documentary is prepared to show warts and all, Grohman details some of Earl’s philandering, including how he used to take women he gave lessons to for drinks in a Winnebago parked by the 18th green at Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California, while Tiger played the course.

“Did he still idolize and love him? Absolutely. But it changed,” Grohman said of the father-son relationship.

Grohman concedes that he and Earl weren’t the best role models at times for Tiger and apologizes for his own indiscretions.

“Sorry, champ,” he says breaking into tears. “Sorry.”

Amber Lauria, a friend of Tiger’s and whose uncle is World Golf Hall of Famer Mark O’Meara, gives the most telling anecdote of Tiger’s love-hate relationship with being famous and how scuba diving became both an escape and a passion. “He said to me, ‘The fishies don’t know who I am down there.’ I thought there was so much truth in that statement, so much sadness in that statement,” Lauria said. “He loved the silence and the peace that he could find in the bottom of the ocean. He could just be.”

The closing scene of the first 90-minute segment of the documentary introduces us to Rachel Uchitel, Tiger’s former girlfriend, and signals that Part Two is going to dig into the salacious aspects of Tiger’s fall from glory. Check back next week for a review of the second half of the Tiger doc ahead of the January 17 premiere.

“What do you want me to talk about?” Uchitel says in Part I’s kicker.

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