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Tiger Woods Never Needed This Redemption Story

‘Tiger’ co-director Matthew Hamachek tells us about the overblown nature of his subject’s sex scandal, why we’re suckers for redemption narratives and the reason why even those Woods betrayed still feel very protective of him

Tiger Woods wasn’t famous from birth, but it’s close. He’s had the cameras on him since he was two, which is when he and his father Earl Woods appeared on The Mike Douglas Show, alongside Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope, to show off his skill with a golf club. In the footage, young Tiger seems a little thrown by all the attention — who are these strange people looking at him? — but he knows what to do with a driver in his hand. It would be a metaphor for the rest of his life.

That footage, which we see near the start of Tiger, is both charming and a warning of what’s to come. This two-part documentary (which premieres on Sunday, with the finale airing a week later) chronicles Eldrick Tont Woods’ journey from electric prodigy to dazzling amateur to world-conquering professional. Golf had never seen anybody like him, and that’s not simply because he was one of the game’s few non-white champions. Taking to describe his ethnicity as “Cablinasian” — a nod to the fact that he’s caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian — the now 45-year-old golfer was charismatic and endearing, an adorable, slightly shy nerd who was, nonetheless, fiercely competitive. But the media latched onto his Blackness, hailing it as part of his ascension in a sport that had often been lily-white. (Indeed, when Woods was starting out, there were courses he was barred from playing because of his skin color.) He never really enjoyed all the adulation, but he had little choice: He was one of those once-in-a-lifetime athletes. Woods had to learn to shut it out and just play golf, like when he was on The Mike Douglas Show.

Alongside his creative partner Matthew Heineman, Tiger co-director Matthew Hamachek has fashioned a rise-then-fall-then-rise-again narrative that stands toe-to-toe with other recent ambitious athlete documentaries. Less grandiose than The Last Dance, less combative than Lance and less damning than The Life and Trials of Oscar Pistorius, the film doesn’t boast Woods’ participation, instead talking to those who have known him across his life, including kindergarten teacher Maureen Decker, fellow golfer Nick Faldo, longtime caddie Steve Williams and Rachel Uchitel, the woman with whom he had an affair that forever punctured his squeaky-clean image. 

In a Zoom conversation from New York this week, Hamachek explains he and Heineman sought a complex, non-fawning portrait of Woods, something they felt they hadn’t seen before. Their message to their interview subjects was always the same: “It’s not going to be this tabloid version [of his story], by any stretch, and it’s also not going to be a puff piece at all.”

Tiger is certainly critical of Woods’ personal failings — specifically, the chronic womanizing he engaged in during his marriage to the mother of his two children, Elin Nordegren — and his penchant for cutting people out of his life. (Beyond Williams, who was unceremoniously fired by Tiger in 2011, Tiger also has interviews with Woods’ first serious girlfriend, Dina Gravell, and a close friend, Amber Lauria, who hasn’t spoken to him in years.) But the film also examines precisely what “Tiger Woods” is — how he became a symbol for so many people, his meaning changing depending on the group observing him. Was he a beacon of racial progress? Was he a tragic figure forever chained to his demanding, flawed father? Was he a tarnished hero laid low by his carnal urges? And what does “redemption” even look like for Tiger Woods, who from childhood seemed destined for greatness?

Heineman and Hamachek’s documentary wrestles with these questions, letting those who knew or covered Woods provide their insights. But for Hamachek, the story goes beyond Woods — it’s also about us. “Our fascination with him is remarkable,” he says at one point during our conversation, and indeed Tiger is partly an investigation of our relationship with this boy wonder, an enigmatic individual we built up and then tore down — only to exalt when he made his amazing comeback by improbably winning the 2019 Masters

Below, Hamachek talks about the danger of being the next big thing and how Woods’ personal misconduct looks now in the light of our modern #MeToo era. But while he has a lot of sympathy for Woods, Hamachek perhaps got most animated discussing Uchitel, who he feels was unfairly demonized during a much-more sexist age. “I don’t think the media ever really gave her a chance,” he tells me. “[They] just turned her into a villain and that was it.”

Watching Tiger, I was thinking that his story is that of the gifted prodigy — it’s a cautionary tale about getting slapped with that next-big-thing label. That definitely comes across from your interview subjects. 

A lot of our process was talking to the people that knew Tiger best. He’s been covered and reported on more than almost any sports and pop-culture figure out there, but a lot of it is at an arm’s length — it’s [from] people [who] didn’t really know him all that well.

When we started to make the film, the first thing we did was reach out to Tiger’s camp and say, “Would Tiger be able to participate?” They let us know that he couldn’t because he had a previous media relationship that he had to honor, and he couldn’t do something with anybody else. So after that, it was, “How are we going to get to the people that knew him best that were in the living room with him — or his caddie of 11 years, Steve Williams?” It was the guy who was in the car with him on the way to matches, that was in the ropes with him on the golf course.

We really listened to what those people had to say. And I do think that one of the themes that they talked about, in terms of Tiger, was the pressure of being put under that limelight at such a young age: What does that [do to] a kid? It raised this interesting question of generalization versus specialization. You listen to what his kindergarten teacher talked about. [Woods] went to her and said, “I’d like to play other sports, I’d like to do other things,” and when she mentioned this to his father, she says that Earl said, “No, that’s not going to happen.” 

But if you look at somebody like Roger Federer, for example, his parents really encouraged him to try to broaden his interests and play lots of different sports — I think they would argue that actually made him a better athlete because he wasn’t just doing one thing over and over again. [Federer] was trying all these different things — that also included being a kid. What’s interesting about Tiger — at least when you talk to all these people, even from talking to his first girlfriend, Dina Gravell — was that the people around Tiger didn’t seem to want him to be distracted by anything that would take away from his golf. 

Was it freeing not to have Tiger participate? This isn’t The Last Dance, where Jordan had control over the film

I would have loved for Tiger to have told his own story. But once we heard from him that he wasn’t going to be able to participate because of this contractual obligation, me and my co-director’s priority was making sure we went through thousands and thousands of hours of interviews that he’s done over the years. We wanted to make sure that his own voice was very present in the film — whether it was him as a teenager, talking about his father and his relationship, or what it was like to walk up the 18th fairway at Augusta in ’97 [when he won the Masters for the first time]. Beyond that, so much of what we did was to talk to people who could help get us inside Tiger’s head. 

You take Amber Lauria, for example, who was one of his closest friends. She told us so much about how all of the pressure of being that famous really wore Tiger down. He would go scuba diving to escape that. She said that Tiger would say to her he liked doing it because “the fishies don’t know who I am down there.” A huge goal of ours was to understand what all of these pressures from such a young age and throughout his life were like.

So much of the Tiger Woods story has always been about his relationship with his father: The man shaped him from childhood, and then haunted him in death. There’s such an inherently dramatic component to their father-son relationship — I imagine there would be no way it couldn’t be a central focus of Tiger as well.

When Matt and I make films, whether it’s together or separately, you really do have to try to avoid coming into the filmmaking process with any preconceived notions. But when you talk to anybody that had a front-row seat for Tiger’s life, they will tell you that the father-son relationship with Earl and Tiger is at the core of his story. It was an incredibly complicated relationship — I don’t think that you can overstate how much Earl meant to Tiger and how much love there was between the two of them. Everybody we talked to talked about that. 

The thing that’s interesting about Earl is that, in 1996 at the Haskins Award banquet, which is sort of a collegiate golf banquet, and it’s the thing that we opened the movie with, he talks about how Tiger is going to transcend the game of golf and essentially become this person who will unite the different races and tribes of humanity. Earl set this almost messianic tone for the way that the world would interpret Tiger from such a young age and gave Tiger this identity. Then Nike ran with that, and then the public and everybody else glommed on to this idea. But then when Earl was gone, [Tiger’s] compass — the person that had guided him through all of these things — was missing. He needed to find a new identity — he needed to find a life that was his. Part One [of our film] is about all of these identities being put onto Tiger, and Part Two is about Tiger finding an identity of his own.

My impression from Tiger is that he tried to deemphasize his race — he didn’t necessarily want that to be a central part of his public identity, especially in how white golf fans perceived him.

When you talk to people that knew him well, they point to how much race has a huge part to do with his life. One of the things that I find so fascinating about Tiger’s story is all of these different things are put and projected onto Tiger — what he was going to represent to different people. It’s different with everybody, and if you talked to Pete McDaniel, who was Earl’s biographer and a very close friend of the family, what he would say is that race had a significant part in Tiger’s life as he was growing up. 

Tiger talked about it a little bit — I can’t remember what year that it was — but he was in a golf cart and he was talking about how his career was going to be even more significant potentially than Jack Nicklaus’ because of his race. What Pete pointed out, as does Bryant Gumbel, is that when the downfall came, race played a significant part — there were a lot of people out there who seemed to take a great deal of glee in his downfall. As one person puts it, when Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta, is addressing Tiger’s wrongs at the 2010 Masters, [it’s like] a public whipping. I think that race is a very important part of Tiger’s life.

Let’s talk about Woods’ sex scandal. It’s amazing to think, in our #MeToo era, just how minor Tiger Woods’ bad behavior really was. Listen, you shouldn’t cheat on your wife or drive while heavily medicated, but the vitriolic reaction just doesn’t match his supposed sins.

People built him up from a very young age to be almost perfect. It started with Earl, and Nike ran with it and the public ran with it — everybody built him up and projected something onto him. If you listen to Pete McDaniel talk about it, those same exact people that built him up, the second that he revealed himself to be a human being — and that’s all it really was, he revealed himself to be human — they pounced on him. And then, the second he started winning golf tournaments again, these same people started talking about, “Oh, this is a redemption story.” I never understood that — I don’t know that Tiger needed to be redeemed in the public’s eye. I don’t think that we’re the people who — if he even needs to be seeking redemption — should be the judges of whether or not he has redeemed himself. I also don’t know what winning golf tournaments has to do with redemption, really. 

Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan were part of Tiger’s entourage, and those guys had much more combative personas. By comparison, Tiger was the nice guy, but it seems like that ultimately undid him in the public’s mind: A nice guy isn’t supposed to be having a bunch of affairs. Tiger “disappointed” us because we thought better of him.

Absolutely. I don’t think that Matt or I ever wanted to paint with broad strokes when it came to the Tiger Woods story, because that’s what a lot of people had done. But when the scandal broke, a lot of people felt like they had been betrayed by him because of the image that they had created of him in their mind — and, also to a degree, the image that Tiger and his team and the people that marketed him created for us to consume. Far too much attention was put on the image that Nike created for him, but one of the things that makes the story so complex is that we’re all culpable for the image we created about Tiger Woods. 

Going back to the racial element, I always wondered if part of the reason the white golf audience adored Tiger Woods so much was that they didn’t feel threatened by him. It plays into old, racist ideas that whites have about Black men as dangerous. Tiger was this smiling, friendly, slightly awkward kid — he wasn’t “dangerous.”

We talked to a journalist who spent a great deal of time with Tiger and Earl [around] 1996, Gary Smith, who wrote an article called “The Chosen One.” One of the things that he talks about in the film is that white America glommed on to the [Masters] win in 1997, falsely, as a sign that we were living in a post-racial America. This, to me, goes back to the notion of all of these people projecting all of these things onto Tiger, and Tiger not having that much of a say in the way that he’s being built up by everyone around him. 

Tiger points out that Tiger’s dad had affairs, too — and that Tiger grew up seeing his dad cheat on his wife. I realize you’re not a psychiatrist, but how much do you think that played into the fact that the son followed in the father’s footsteps? 

I don’t know, I think that it would be simple armchair-psychology to say that. I guess what I’d say is this: The thing that fascinated me more than anything else was Joe Grohman, the golf pro who, like Earl, was a married man who had lots of affairs when they were at the Navy Golf Course. He talks about the guilt that he feels for letting Tiger witness [those infidelities] in his formative years. I don’t feel comfortable making a direct connection: If you witness something when you’re a kid, is that the only reason why you do something when you’re an adult? We’re more complicated than that. But Joe certainly feels a great deal of guilt about that.

You got Rachel Uchitel, his mistress, to talk on camera. How easy was that to make happen?

Everybody that we talked to — even the people who had acrimonious splits from Tiger, whether it was the caddie or anybody else — they are all, to this day, so fiercely protective of Tiger. That included Rachel Uchitel.

With Rachel, it was us saying, “We really are trying to set out to make an incredibly complicated portrait of this guy. It’s not going to be this tabloid version, by any stretch, and it’s also not going to be a puff piece at all.” With all of these people, that’s the thing that we had to prove to them before they were willing to sit down with us. But with Rachel, the other component was the media had turned her into a caricature — they blamed her for everything that Tiger had done. Some of the most compelling footage in the film is when she’s walking down the street, after the scandal broke in 2009, and the paparazzi are just saying things to her that are unimaginable — certainly unimaginable in the #MeToo era.

She’s absolutely vilified. She’s “the homewrecker.” They’re practically stoning her.

Yeah, and just the words that they were using — even the women on The View, the way they were talking about her, I just don’t think that people would talk about her in the same way today. It’s shocking because it was only 11 years ago. I think Rachel really wanted to tell her story for the first time — I don’t think the media ever really gave her a chance. [They] just turned her into a villain, and that was it.

Why are these people so protective of him? They have every reason not to be.

A lot of the people that had these splits from Tiger — somewhat abruptly in a lot of cases — you would imagine that they would have an ax to grind rather than that they would be protective. But the thing that we found was that they’ve seen the way the public [and] the media treated Tiger — they’ve seen what has happened to him over the course of his life and how much the pressure of those expectations weighed on him and how much he spent his entire life trying to escape it. They wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to be doing the same thing that happened to him his entire life. 

But did any part of you think, “They’re hoping to get back in his good graces by painting him a positive light”?

I truly never got a sense that people were there with an ax to grind or that they were trying to get back into his good graces. I think, truly, people felt like the complex, nuanced telling of the Tiger Woods story had never been done before. Once they knew that that’s what the goal was — and that we were there to listen and not tell them that they weren’t fitting into our preconceived [story] — they were willing to participate.

The movie points out that, after Tiger’s scandal, Nike got criticism for an ad that featured a quote of his: “Winning takes care of everything.” But Tiger ends with his triumphant win at the 2019 Masters — his first major championship in 11 years. In a sense, the movie has a happy ending that suggests that winning did take care of everything — that the Masters gave him redemption. Did you wrestle with the fact that the movie ultimately is a redemption story? 

Well, the simple answer is that he did win the 2019 Masters, and it was an incredible thing from a golf perspective. But there’s a reason that Pete McDaniel is the last interview voice that you hear. It’s important that he says, as [Tiger is] walking up the 18th fairway, “I thought about all the people that were going to write about this as a redemption story. These were the same people that, when he was in the depths, they were jumping on him with both feet.” 

One of the most telling lines of Earl’s speech from 1996 at the Haskins Award banquet is when he says, “This is my treasure. Use it wisely.” He’s not talking to Tiger when he says that — he’s talking to us. I hope that one of the questions that you come away [from the film] with is, “Did we use this treasure wisely or did we not?” He’s speaking to us as much as anybody else.

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