Scott Fitzgerald observed there are “no second acts” in American lives, and the story of Tiger Woods’ rise, fall, and comeback seems to disprove that theory.
But what a fall it was.
From winning 14 tournaments (closing in on Jack Nicklaus’ 19), the still-young Woods went into a downward spiral int the 200s after his golf-prodding father, Earl, died, leaving his moral compass askew and sending him down a rabbit hole of VIP bottle clubs, mistresses, painkillers, arrests and mug shots.
The HBO miniseries Tiger breaks it neatly into a first act and second act, only hinting by the end of its first 90 minutes how dark this will get (the creepy Evidently Chickentown by John Cooper Clarke soundtracks as the first mistress is miked up for the camera and the credits roll).
Woods started out as a child golf prodigy, putting on TV with Bob Hope as his former Green Beret dad Earl egged him on (at one point, asked if he loved golf, toddler Tiger stares blankly and says “I want to go poo-poo now”). It’s a tale of a child robbed of his childhood, informed early on by his dad that he was destined to be a “transforming” figure in golf, bridging all races — a “Caublasian,” as he came to call himself in interviews — in a sport that had largely kept minorities on the outside, at best hired as caddies.
Tiger was transformative, with peerless grace and focus (evidently aided by a honed ability to self-hypnotize during tournaments), and an ability to bring races together that matched Michael Jordan’s. And of course, with hundreds of millions in endorsement deals, he had to keep up a pretty pure image.
But here, we see countless images of Tiger (who declined to participate in this no-holds-barred documentary) staring into some far-off abyss, looking as miserable as any multimillionaire world champion athlete has ever looked.
But here, we see countless images of Tiger staring into some far-off abyss, looking as miserable as any multimillionaire world champion athlete has ever looked.
We learn that teen relationships were the first thing to be cut, as both Earl and Tiger’s Thai mom Kultida wanted him to stop dating his first girlfriend, blonde Dina Gravell, at 16 because it was distracting him from golf (he ended it cold, in an almost robotic “Dear Jane” letter that she reads onscreen).
Marrying Swedish model Elin Nordegren helped shore up Tiger’s appearance of outside normality, but inside, the HBO special suggests, he was a wreck: already desperate to get away from public attention, and with fewer people to confide in (friends and longtime caddies were cut loose after Earl died), he turned to the “anonymity” of Las Vegas, where what happens behind closed doors stays there.
But Tiger got caught. Badly. From the National Enquirer “catch and kill” stories to strings of cast-aside VIP girls and mistresses with stories to sell, it ended with Elin swinging at him and his SUV with a golf club amid a tabloid feeding frenzy.
In between, there are reminders of a champion’s strength: Woods playing through, and winning, a US Open in 2008 — despite suffering a double stress fracture in his leg and torn ligaments in his knee.
Tiger’s first act ends with divorce, back surgery, opioid addiction, and a pullover arrest — the mug shot “moment of disgrace” that many rightly painted as a racist trope.
But he climbed back, out of a hellhole of his own making, and actually won the 2019 Masters Open, a stunning comeback of the old Tiger Woods focus and drive. Fans were understandably astonished; they’d written him off as another scandal victim, spiraling into oblivion. But every good comeback story does wonders to bury the premature obituaries. Now, after a so-so 2020 performance, Woods still has a way to go to catch up to that Jack Nicklaus record. But as the HBO series shows us, it’s never too late for second acts.
Banner photo from AFP.