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There’s an oft-quoted Philip Larkin line about how your parents can mess you up. The famously sweary opening of Larkin’s 1971 poem This Be The Verse is followed by the less well-known: “They fill you with the faults they had / And add some extra, just for you.”
This sentiment kept coming to mind during Tiger (Sky Documentaries), a sweeping two-part documentary about the rise, fall and resurgence of golfing superstar Tiger Woods. And it was mainly his late father Earl who did the f---ing up.
The documentary opened with a ludicrously grandiose speech given by Earl Woods in 1996, before Tiger had even won a major professional title. "He will transcend this game and bring to the world a humanitarianism which has never been known before,” Earl told the audience. ”The world will be a better place to live in, by virtue of his existence and his presence.” No pressure, son.
Going back to the beginning, we saw how Earl and his wife, Kultida, started training their only child when he was still in a high-chair. The prodigy famously appeared on a chat show aged two, playing Bob Hope in a putting contest. In another amusingly awkward TV interview, toddler Tiger guilelessly broke the tension by answering a question about golf with: "I want to go poo-poo.”
Time and again, I winced at how hard Earl pushed him. Tiger’s kindergarten teacher said he wanted to try other sports but his father wouldn't allow it. His parents made Tiger break things off with high school sweetheart Dina Parr by writing her a cold, business-like letter. Earl used military “psy-ops” techniques to mentally toughen him up.
Tiger was relentlessly trained to be a winning machine but at what personal cost? His emotional growth seemed stunted. At the height of his powers and fame, we poignantly heard how Woods found comfort in watching cartoons with a bowl of cereal.
Meanwhile, Earl was busy comparing him to Gandhi, Buddha and Nelson Mandela. He told anyone who’d listen that Tiger was little short of the Second Coming, which I guess made him God. Once Tiger turned pro, his sponsor, Nike, continued the sermon, hailing Woods as “the great black hope” in his debut ad campaign.
Made by HBO, the documentary didn’t flinch from the race issue, pointing out that Tiger won his first Major in 1997 at Augusta - a venerable club built on a slave plantation, which had only started admitting black members six years previously. “And then we didn’t see him for dust for the next 12 years,” laughed one-time rival Nick Faldo.
Towards the end of the first feature-length episode came a queasy revelation which foreshadowed what was to come. Family friend Joe Grohman explained how Earl “chased skirt” and was serially unfaithful to “Tida”, usually in a Winnebago parked by the golf course on which Tiger was practising. Earl didn’t try to hide it from his son.
In its depth and detail, the opening instalment recalled The Last Dance, last year’s Netflix opus about basketball titan Michael Jordan. Indeed, Jordan had a walk-on part here. Nike saw Woods as his natural successor, as “Michael Jordan in long pants”. The two cash cows later became buddies, partying together in Las Vegas - the start of Woods’s descent down his father’s rabbit hole of lies and womanising.
Thus far, the content was illuminating, the production values classy. It was in the second half when things turned tawdry and tabloidy - but I suppose that reflects the trajectory of Woods himself. The tone was set by the arrival of Neal Boulton, former editor of the National Enquirer, as a talking head. This oleaginous character gleefully detail the scandal sheet’s role in uncovering Woods’ extra-marital affairs, recalling details about trysts in church parking lots.
As Woods's private life spiralled out of control, the story became increasingly sordid and sad. Surgically enhanced “nightclub hostesses” tipped up to tell their stories. Eventually Woods’s self-destructive behaviour resulted in that infamous driveway car crash. The winning machine had finally broken down.
He went into rehab for sex and prescription drug addiction but, in a less sympathetic purge, ruthlessly cut people out of his life. "I thought he was firing me as a golf caddy, not firing me as a friend," said long-time sidekick Steve Williams, clearly still hurting. “To this day, I find it a hard pill to swallow.”
There was certainly a racial element to the way that America seemed to rejoice in Woods’s downfall. As Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith said: “We like to believe we‘re this place without racism but that’s a great American myth.”
There was a rousing, redemptive final act as Woods battled back from a string of agonising injuries. The fairy-tale ending came with his shock triumph at the 2019 Masters, his first Major win for 11 years. His victorious hug with son Charlie was movingly juxtaposed with the embrace he shared with Earl after winning there 22 years previously.
It might have been uneven but this was a compellingly tragic psychological portrait. Refreshingly for a sport documentary, there were plenty of female voices too - although we didn't hear from Woods's ex-wife, Elin Nordegren, the real victim in this mess.
Woods refused (twice) to take part and is apparently “not thrilled about” this documentary, feeling that it reopens old wounds. He shouldn’t worry. It ultimately painted a sympathetic picture of an individual damaged by his deification - but who, by crashing back down to earth so spectacularly, had become much more human. He was no longer the Messiah, he was a very naughty boy.