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Uncaging Tiger Woods: Analysis of HBO's Tiger Documentary

(Image via Getty Images)

HBO’s two-part sports documentary, Tiger, reminds us that the myth isn't just a man, but a bi-racial man at that. It unpacks Tiger Woods’ legacy both on and off the golf course but more importantly, critiques the role of athletes in our capitalistic culture. The first part of the series utilizes a deep analysis of Earl Wood's relationship with his son as the vehicle to explain the becoming of Tiger. Viewers are immersed in their relationship immediately, as the opening scene begins with an emotional Earl Woods describing his attachment to his son and then cuts to excited screams of Tiger taking swings as an infant. This same audio is used throughout the series, “please forgive me but sometimes I get very emotional when I talk about my son.” The repetition of this audio conveys Earl’s omnipresence and we can feel the severity of the man’s influence on Tiger. Earl’s expectations for Tiger to be a healer and to bring together “all tribes of humanity,” are given weight as the camera tracks Tiger across the course. We can feel the heaviness of these expectations on his shoulders as he strides with purpose, his gaze fixed on the green. This father-son complex not only left an impact on the world of golf but also on our intertextual cultural memory as well.

In Ocean Vuong's 2019 critically acclaimed novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong traces the namesake, Tiger, to Earl’s bellicose best friend from the Vietnam War, and explains, “the name “Tiger,” but also Earl himself, had become a bridge. When Earl finally heard the news of Tiger Phong’s death, Tiger Woods had already won his first Masters” (58). Earl Woods and Tiger Woods' relationship spans generations, cultural spheres, continents and will continue to do so. In examining this potent father-son dynamic, we have the opportunity to confront how generational trauma shapes American sports and the mental health of those with a significant platform.

While the first part focused on the becoming of Tiger, the second part of the series reveals the unbecoming of Tiger. We watch his personal life and then his physicality fall apart. In one specific scene, where an infant Tiger's swing is cut with an adolescent Tiger's swing, and each proceeding cut quickly moves through each swing of each phase in Tiger's career, we feel his wrenching pain. Each slap of a golf ball builds to the crunch of his knee and the weight becomes tangible. The use of seedy Vegas night club footage forces us to relive watching him fall from grace. His mug-shot and the harrowing footage from jail are cut with the images of him carefully composed after winning a major, muttering under his breath...

“fuck me”.

(Image via NBC News)

The graphic implies that these are the same man except the one before us can no longer perform for us. He can no longer be a product for us, he can no longer provide us with the service of winning. The “fuck me,” finally fucked him. Audiences are forced to confront their own attachments to celebrities and athletes as we see how we had broken Tiger. Do we expect perfection from them because we know we can’t achieve it ourselves?? Do they serve as receptacles for our own unresolved traumas? While the documentary leaves us with conventional narrative satisfaction in true "phoenix rising from the ashes" fashion, Woods goes on to heal from his wounds inside and out, reenters the world's stage of golf, and win his 15th major, it does leave us with big questions and an even bigger call to action.

Why now, why are we telling the story of Tiger right at this moment in history? We watched the rise of Tiger Woods, and we saw a bi-racial man find success in a sacred white space. We celebrated his success, and we chose to see a black man on a golf course and think we had overcome racism in this country. We chose to see him embroidered in Nike and believe in a post-racial America. He took greatness that did not belong to him, and we punished him for it by pinning an idea of perfection and unattainability onto him. We watched the fall of Tiger Woods, and the media turned him into the black man we have been conditioned and socialized into fearing. We rejected him because he reminded us that there is work to do. Earl Woods and the American people placed a weight onto one man, as we do to many of our athletes, and now it is our responsibility to distribute it amongst ourselves. It needs to be our weight as it is far too heavy for one man to carry.

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