I’ve always felt a strange sort of kinship with Tiger Woods.
We don’t really know each other. But our lives and paths have intersected enough that I’ve felt a strange tie to him for a long time.
We grew up 18 miles apart, as southern California kids in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the mid-1990s I worked for the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and I had to make sure any mention of Tiger’s exploits included the key phrase of “Cypress’ Tiger Woods,” since Cypress was in our circulation area.
When I became the golf writer at the Free Press in 2004, Tiger tracked me down in Michigan and continued to stalk me by playing in the Buick Open every year.
So we’re very similar people, give or take a billion dollars in net worth and slightly different golf swings.
I always loved watching Tiger play golf and I appreciated his skill and artistry on the course. But I was never a fanboy, and I didn’t root for or against him. I was never enough of a fan to be emotionally involved in Tiger’s highs and lows.
That’s why I was surprised by how sad I was Sunday night after watching “Tiger,” the first installment of an excellent two-part HBO documentary about Woods’ life that boasts “never-before-seen footage and revealing interviews with those who know the golfer best.”
The documentary is riveting and replete with those”revealing interviews.” Most notable were Dina Parr, Tiger’s high school girlfriend, and Joe Grohman, a teaching pro at the Navy golf course near Woods’ home who befriended Tiger and his father, Earl, when they played there regularly during Tiger’s childhood.
At the center of all that sadness was Woods’ complicated relationship with his dad. It was clear Tiger loved and idolized Earl but chafed under his direction as he became a young man and a sports icon.
The documentary asserts, through interviews with Grohman and Parr, that Earl, who died at age 74 in 2006, had extra-marital affairs, which hurt the relationship with his son and provided a poor example for a young Tiger.
“Gosh, you know, I loved this guy,” Grohman said of Earl during the doc. “Earl was a great, great dad. But I don’t know how to smooth this one over. I assure you that we were not the best role models when it came to honoring your marriage. I assure you. This is a tough one. I think I need 2 seconds to collect my thoughts.”
Grohman paused briefly before he continued.
“(Shoot). He’s not going to like this (stuff) at all,” Grohman said of Tiger. “Earl had this little Winnebago and we’d let him teach on the range. And he somehow would teach very attractive blonde women. I never figured out where he met these women. And often after the lesson they’d go into the Winnebago for cocktails. And Tiger was at the course and I was just every bit as bad.
“I mean, for a long time me and Earl were the two biggest male figures in his life, the two closest to him. And here I am chasing skirts and bringing them to the course. And he’s seeing this. Yeah, yeah, and I was married, too, at the time. And he’s seeing this. Yeah. You know to have that kind of access to this child’s development and expose him to that – it’s just, it’s just, yeah. I mean, yeah. Yeah.”
Grohman nodded and shook his head.
“Sorry, champ,” he said quietly. “Sorry.”
Parr gave her own sad story about Woods having to deal with his father’s infidelity. She spoke of an incident that happened when Woods and Earl had traveled to a summer tournament.
“He was sobbing on the phone uncontrollably,” she said. “I couldn’t even understand what he was saying, he was so upset. He finally caught his breath and you know said, ‘My dad’s out again. He met this girl and they’re going out.’
“The sound of Tiger’s voice was so upsetting I wanted to crawl through the phone and just take care of him. I’ve never heard somebody in my life so upset. And his dad I don’t think really cared that he knew it. I think that also bothered him. Like why would you not try to hide this from me? …
“Tiger’s mom (Kultida) was a loyal, good mother and he absolutely loved her. So there was an anger there with his dad. But he could never show it, he could never express it. He had to keep that in and it changed the relationship with him and his dad.”
Tiger Woods was not interviewed in the documentary. His agent, Mark Steinberg, issued this statement Sunday to Golfworld: “Just like the book it is based off of, the upcoming HBO documentary is just another unauthorized and salacious outsider attempt to paint an incomplete portrait of one of the greatest athletes of all-time.”
The book Steinberg referred to was “Tiger,” written by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict, who are executive producers on the documentary, and published in 2018.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There are plenty of light moments. One of the best is when the personal animosity Kultida feels for Phil Mickelson is explained. Woods grew up in the shadow of the older Mickelson during their youth in California and they became each other’s main rivals on the PGA Tour.
“Phil’s nickname is Lefty,” former Los Angeles Times reporter Thomas Bonk said. “But Tida called him Hefty.”
One of the themes in the documentary is the sense that Woods seemed trapped in some ways into becoming who Earl wanted him to be. One poignant example came when Woods’ kindergarten teacher, Maureen Decker, tried to tell Earl his son wanted to play other sports.
“I think Earl had a master plan since Tiger started walking,” Decker said. “… One day, Tiger opened up and he asked me to ask his dad if he could play some other sports besides just golfing. And I told him I would.
“None of the teacher were happy to see Earl coming in for a conference or for anything at all. They said he was a pain in the ass. That’s what they said, and I agreed with them. He was a definite S.O.B. So I didn’t want to say anything to aggravate Earl. But I did say that I thought it would be nice if Tiger could play other sports. But Mr. Woods said he had to concentrate on his golf.”
Woods has been fiercely protective of his privacy, which made the archival footage from home movies taken at Parr’s house even more special. It showed Tiger doing typically silly teenager stuff like dancing and lip-synching and mugging in a tuxedo on his way to a formal event.
Parr said Woods enjoyed the freedom of being himself at her house, as opposed to the “quietness of his house” that “sometimes drove him crazy.”
“He knew that he could be himself,” she said, “and there was no judgment and no pressure to live up to all these expectations.”
Parr painted a somewhat harsh view of Woods’ upbringing, which included countless trophies but few friends and possibly even fewer options to explore who he might have become without his father’s driving guidance.
At one point, the story of the final round of the 2001 Masters is told and within it, Tiger’s disdain for Mickelson is explored. Rooted in that disdain is the idea that Woods struggled to understand how Mickelson could waste all his talent by not being more disciplined.
Tiger outdueled Mickelson in the final round to complete the “Tiger Slam” — holding all four major titles at the same time. Mickelson wouldn’t win his first major for another three years.
But it made me think about the cost of Woods’ excellence, and how much he had to give up and endure to become the best. That price, despite all of Woods’ riches, remains incalculable.
The second part of the documentary airs on HBO at 9 p.m. Sunday.
By Carlos Monarrez, Detroit Free Press
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