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HBO documentary aims to be the definitive Tiger Woods bio film and aces it

Provocative but balanced, “Tiger” boasts a treasure trove of amazing footage and interviews with key players, including rare comments from the golfer’s mistress, Rachel Uchitel.

Tiger Woods enjoys the applause after winning the 2001 Masters.
Amy Sancetta/AP

Watching the riveting two-part HBO documentary “Tiger,” one can’t help but be struck by the many similarities between Tiger Woods and one Michael Jordan. (You know, the guy who starred in “The Last Dance.”)

  • Like Jordan, Woods was a once-in-a-generation athlete who was gifted with great talent but also pushed himself harder than just about anyone else in his sport.
  • Like Jordan, Woods had an extremely close, best-friends relationship with his father, who was a constant presence in the early years of his superstardom.
  • Like Jordan, Woods skyrocketed to fame and fortune in the 1990s, signing a mega-millions endorsement deal with Nike (among others) while carefully crafting a role-model public image that didn’t always jibe with his life behind closed doors.
  • Like MJ, who was hyper-competitive to the point of manufacturing rivalries and perceived slights, Tiger was always looking for that extra edge against his foes, e.g., his resentment of the talented but more laid-back Phil Mickelson, who allowed himself an extra 20 pounds while Tiger was hitting the weight room.
  • And like MJ, Tiger had a penchant for certain extracurricular activities that tarnished the reputation he had worked so hard to cultivate and revealed a much more complex and fallible human being than the ad slogans and the PR campaigns would have us believe.

In fact, there’s a moment in “Tiger” when we see Jordan, Woods and Charles Barkley hitting the town in Las Vegas. Whereas Jordan was at ease being the Alpha King on and off the court, Woods was at the time almost socially awkward. What was he supposed to say to all these women hovering about?

“Tell ’em you’re Tiger Woods,” was Jordan’s reply. (As related by a journalist quoted in the film.)

But as Woods would eventually learn, what happens in Vegas almost never stays in Vegas. It winds up in the tabloids and on the TV newscasts and becomes a staple of the late-night talk show monologues and results in life-shattering consequences, in a country and a culture that loves seeing heroes rise and takes almost equal delight in watching them crash. Few sports stars have experienced such a meteoric, game-changing rise, such a spectacularly terrible fall — and, against all odds, such an improbable comeback.

Premiering Sunday at 8 p.m. with Part Two airing at the same time Jan. 17 (for a total running time of a little more than three hours), “Tiger” is a must-see documentary, whether you’re a hardcore golf fan or you wouldn’t know a sand wedge from a driver. Directors Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek have pieced together the definitive filmed biography of Tiger Woods, even though Woods himself is conspicuous by his absence. You get chills rewatching Woods’ most memorable triumphs on the golf course, when he’s wearing the famous blood-red Sunday Nike shirt on the 18th green as the fans roar in adoration. You’re still stunned to see the police cam footage of a dazed Woods in custody after he was arrested with five drugs in his system.

“Tiger” tells its story through a treasure trove of archival footage dating all the way back to when the 2 ½-year old Tiger appeared with his father, Earl, on “The Mike Douglas Show” and demonstrated his already astounding prowess with a golf club, plus interviews with Woods’ first serious girlfriend, Dina Parr; golf great Nick Faldo; biographer Pete McDaniel; his former caddy, Steve Williams; a number of outstanding sports journalists including Bryant Gumbel — and, speaking for the first time in public, Rachel Uchitel, who became globally infamous overnight when she was identified as Woods’ mistress. The result is an informative, provocative, occasionally lurid but ultimately balanced treatment.

Before Woods turned pro, his father, Earl Woods, was publicly touting him not only as a next-level golfer but as a transcendent figure, saying his son could have the same kind of impact on the world as Gandhi. Even with that kind of pressure from his father, and with Nike’s first ad campaign for Woods playing the race card, not to mention almost impossible hype about his actual game, Woods somehow managed to exceed expectations, winning the Masters in 1997 by a record 12-shot margin.

Woods was like a rock star, mobbed by fans everywhere, his privacy a thing of the past. And yet he recklessly engaged in multiple affairs, even after the National Enquirer came to a “catch and kill” agreement by which they wouldn’t run a story about Woods’ dalliances if he would agree to a cover story in a sister publication. To this day, it’s stunning to see footage of a number of Woods’ mistresses claiming they were in love with him, that he was going to leave his family for them. Even Uchitel, who held her silence for all these years, says she believed they had a special connection that went far deeper than a sexual fling.

Things went from bad to worse when Woods was arrested for driving while impaired in 2017 and suffered a series of injuries that seemed to close the book on his career. Yet in 2019, there was Tiger Woods once again winning the Masters at the age of 44, besting the young pros half his age.

It’s all the stuff of movies, and “Tiger” does a splendid job of telling Tiger’s tale.