The Biggest Tiger Bombshells: Tiger Woods' Amazing Rise and All the Signs He Was Headed for a Fall


Tiger Woods, Tiger documentary, HBOHBO

Few larger-than-life figures in sports have proved as polarizing as Tiger Woods.

But that’s only because no one person may have carried as much on his shoulders as the golfer from Cypress, Calif., who was 3 months old when his father first put a club in his hands and at 21 became the youngest-ever and first Black winner of the Masters in 1997. And few were seen through the rosy prism of competitive greatness as Woods was, only to have that view shattered practically overnight by an explosive scandal.

While he was hardly the first superstar athlete to experience a fall from grace—that much-used phrase as apt here as it can be—the revelation of Woods as a mere mortal who made mistakes disappointed those who put him on a pedestal, not just as an unstoppable force in the world of golf, but as a trailblazer who inspired people all over the world with his ability and accomplishments.

A History of Holiday Scandals

Earl Woods had made no secret of the fact that he expected his son to become the greatest golfer of all time, as well as forever change the game that had historically been considered a sport for upper-class white people. 

Per-Anders Pettersson./Corbis via Getty Images

And Woods—whose father was of Black, Chinese and Asian descent while his mother has Thai, Chinese and Dutch origins (“Cablinasian” is how Tiger would describe himself on Oprah in 1997)—signed up for the challenge, saying in an early interview that he could end up being bigger than all-time Majors winner Jack Nicklaus because of the impact he could have in the Black community.

“I may be sort of like a Michael Jordan in basketball,” he offered.

Jordan (who later became a friend) has had his controversies, but he at least got to share the court in his playing day with other basketball greats (if not with other GOATs) and big personalities. But when it came to golf, Woods was the sport’s unequivocal rock star and its main draw for a decade, ratings rising and falling with his presence, the solitary nature of the game making him an enigmatic team of one.

And he couldn’t have felt more solitary than when the reputation that he had built (and yet at the same time was applied to him by default, buoyed by other people’s hopes and dreams) was destroyed, calling into question what would arise in its place.

Celebrities Golfing

None of his missteps can take away from his greatness, what he accomplished and continues to achieve at still only 45 years old. But the glaring 11-year gap in his career during which he won no major titles—a drought that had much to do with injuries but also unignorably coincided with his divorce after being revealed as a serial cheater—will always be there.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Plenty has been written and said about what makes Woods tick, and HBO is digging in anew with the two-part Tiger, which follows his storybook rise, bizarre fall—and his resurgence that finally felt complete when he won the Masters in 2019, 22 years after earning his first title at Augusta.

Starting with security footage of Woods taking a sobriety test in a police station, set against the audio of his late father speaking at a 1996 banquet, a 20-year-old Woods shifting uncomfortably in his seat as Earl heaps expectations on him, the show is obviously set up to mine the contradictions between the man and the star, the hero athlete and the Icarus who could only stay aloft for so long before he came crashing down to earth.

Woods, who is due to release his own memoir this year, didn’t participate, but a lot of people did, including his high school girlfriend, Dina Parr, who talks of being dumped most unceremoniously, and Rachel Uchitel, the mistress who became the poster girl for the athlete’s philandering ways. Here are the biggest revelations from Part I:

Split Decision

When Eldrick “Tiger” Woods was in kindergarten, his former teacher Maureen Decker recalls in the two-part HBO documentary, the child—who had a slight stammer when he was little and wouldn’t talk much with a person until he felt comfortable with them—asked her if she would ask his dad, Earl Woods—who had his phenom son showing off his short game on The Mike Douglas Show when Tiger was 2—if it would be alright for him to play some other sports besides golf.

Decker said that none of the teachers were ever pleased to see Earl at the school, that he was “a pain in the ass,” she laughed. “And I agreed with them. He was a definite S.O.B.”

When she broached the idea of Tiger playing other sports with Earl, he said that the boy needed to concentrate on his golf game.

The Master Plan

“We can’t dictate to him what he can be and what he cannot be,” Earl is seen saying in an old interview. “So as a consequence, what we do is, we participate with him in golf. And if it was bowling we would participate with him in bowling. Each and every one of us has his own life to live, and he has a choice to live his life the way he wants to live his life.”

“Trust me, Earl was a well-versed bulls–tter,” family friend Pete McDaniel says with a laugh at the notion of Tiger’s dad’s claim that he would have been just as happy if his son had pursued something other than golf.

“I think Earl had the master plan since Tiger started walking,” Decker said.

Wedge Issue

Dina Parr, Tiger’s high school sweetheart, remembered being worried about all the pressure he would face as he got more and more famous.

In their relationship, “I think he saw the bridge to me being able to give him a normal life,” she said. “He knew he could be himself and there was no judgment, no pressure to live up to all these expectations.”

Parr recalled, “I was in love with him. I would tell him all the time, golf is great, it’s your passion, but it’s not everything. There’s more to life.”

Ultimately, she felt that Tiger’s parents, Earl and Kultida Woods, definitely didn’t see her in their plans for their son. 

“I felt like their plans were creating this robot,” Parr said. “There was all this preparation for golf, which is great, you’re going to be a great golfer. But he had no life skills. He had not been prepared for life, and I was probably the only person around him that really kept him in check.”

Tiger would insist he did love her and wanted to have a life with her, she said. 

Family friend Joe Grohman recalled Tiger getting busted lying to his parents, telling them he was coming home from college for a visit but actually arriving a day earlier and staying with Dina. “Tida was ‘goddamning’ a lot…And Earl was incensed…They were ready to kick him out of the house, they were so mad. Tiger, you know, he was spooked.”

And then Tiger wrote Dina a letter, after a three-year relationship, telling her that neither he nor his parents ever wanted to talk to or hear from her again, that he felt “used and manipulated” by her and her family.

“Sincerely, Tiger.”

Just Do It

The immediate question was whether to “play the race card” when it came to Nike marketing Woods, whom the sports behemoth signed to a multimillion-dollar deal the minute the 19-year-old decided to leave Stanford and turn pro.

“Nike’s not stupid, financially,” recalled Nike advertising director James Riswold of the strategy to herald Woods as not only the next Michael Jordan, but as a paradigm-shifting athlete. “Using Tiger to reach a wider range of golfer and expand the golf universe is a no-brainer. They said, ‘F–kin’ yeah, let’s do this.'”

Fast-forward to 2021 and the concept is no longer new, but at the time this 1996 commercial featuring Woods—”Hello, World. I’ve heard I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me?”—that acknowledged racial inequality was considered extremely provocative.

Woods told reporters, “I think it’s a message that’s been long awaited, because it’s very true. And being a person who is, I guess how you could say, non-white, I have experienced that. And the Nike campaign is just telling the truth.”

Though the marketing worked like a charm, behind the scenes (and openly in the media) there was concern as to whether this was too much pressure to put on a 21-year-old. Tiger’s win at the 1997 Masters, his first Major championship, seemed to prove that no one need worry too much.

Peanut Gallery, Heavy on the Nut

Despite the 21-year-old’s unbelievable poise, McDaniel remembered Woods not being able to sleep the night before the final round at Augusta in 1997.

“I know Tiger received some racially motivated threats, and during tournament itself, you would hear the n-word from some of the folks in the gallery,” McDaniel shared. “And as strong as he is mentally, he wasn’t able to block all of it out. So he got up, he saw a light under the door in Earl’s bedroom.” When he talked to his dad, “Earl eased all of his fears.”

The Great American Myth

“It was almost white America patting itself on the back,” said Gary Smith, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, recalling the hype surrounding Tiger after his first Masters win. “Like, ‘Look, this is the promise that America makes, that anyone can use the tools that this country offers and make it to the highest level regardless of race, color, creed.’ We like to believe we’re this place without racism, but that’s a great American myth.”

Added Real Sports host Bryant Gumbel, “People thought that Tiger was going to introduce this groundswell.” McDaniel further explained, “As an African-American, I know how we are. We take great pride in young people who accomplish great things, and we claimed Tiger Woods. He was ours.”

As Woods moved away from defining himself as a Black athlete—referring to himself as “Cablinasian” certainly made headlines—telling Oprah Winfrey in 1997 that he preferred not to be called African-American, Gumbel said, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. You know, my grandkids are biracial, and somebody asked this, they said, ‘Well, what do you tell them?’ And I tell them they’re Black, they’re African-American. And they said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because that’s how America is going to look at them.’ And that’s the reality of Tiger.”

And those close to Woods soon figured out that it was Earl’s dream that his son become “a unifying force,” not Tiger’s.

Just Stop

Woods’ former caddie Steve Williams, whom the golfer parted ways with in 2011, remembered a time when he was driving the two of them down a freeway in Toronto when all of a sudden Woods demanded he pull over. Williams did, and Woods grabbed a club out of the trunk and started practicing his swing on the side of the road.

He couldn’t wait until tomorrow, or even until when they got back to the hotel. “It had to be now,” Williams said.

That was around the time when, in addition to constantly retooling his swing, Tiger started hitting the gym, hard, packing on 22 pounds of muscle to go from 158 pounds when he first joined the PGA Tour to 180.

That Sinking Feeling

In around 2000, when he won the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship, Woods—easily one of the most famous people on the planet by then—took up scuba diving, which his friend Amber Lauria admittedly thought was weird.

When she asked him about it, she recalled him telling her, “‘The fishes don’t know who I am down there.’ I thought there was so much truth in that statement, so much sadness in that statement. He loved the silence and the peace that he could find at the bottom of the ocean. He could just be.”

When he won the 2001 Masters, he held all four Grand Slam championships at once, a feat quickly dubbed the “Tiger Slam.”

A Strained Bond

By the time he signed a new five-year, $100 million deal with Nike following the “Tiger Slam,” Woods and his father, who as a teen he’d unequivocally called his “best friend” (and vice versa), had grown distant.

“Obviously there is far more that I could tell you about their disagreements, but I can’t,” Pete McDaniel said. “I can’t talk about that. That’s one place I know not to go to.”

Joe Grohman, struggling to find the right words, said of Earl, “I love this guy. Earl was a great, great dad.” He paused. “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.” Taking a beat to think it over, Grohman sighed. “S–t,” he said. “He’s not going to like this s–t.”

Earl, he explained, used to give private lessons (at the course where Joe was an assistant pro) to very attractive blonde women, who, when the lesson was over, would join Earl in his Winnebago for cocktails. Grohman shrugged guiltily. “And, you know, Tiger was at the course, and I was just every bit as bad.”

So there Tiger was, watching the two predominant male figures in his life, both married, “chasing skirts and bringing them to the course, and he’s seeing this…To expose him to that, I mean…yeah.”

Parr agreed, “That made a huge impact on his life.” She sensed Tiger was bothered by not just the cheating, but by the fact that his dad never even tried to hide his philandering from his son. Tiger loved his mom so much, Parr continued, and he was simply angry at his dad.

Smitten Kitten

Caddie Steve Williams recalled Tiger being “very, very fond” of Elin Nordegren, who worked as a nanny for a fellow golfer, right away. 

“She had opinions about celebrities—and they were not high,” Elin’s friend Sandra Sobieraj Westfall recalled of her pal’s initial impression of Tiger. “So the idea of joining that world was not appealing to her.”

She gradually came around to the idea of going out with him, and the attention was difficult to deal with, Westfall said, “but Tiger was very sweetly protective of Elin. She said it felt special. Ironically, the spotlight that first repelled her suddenly bonded them. Sort of, us against the world. It was just the two of them and she believe it was everything.” 

They married Oct. 5, 2004, in Barbados.

The Curse of Happiness

Naturally the next leg of the Tiger-Elin love story was “but will she affect his game?!”

But Tiger just buckled down and won the Masters, his first green jacket as a married man, and the British Open in 2005.

In the Rough

Though it could only remain a secret for so long, Woods tried to protect his father’s reputation—and therefore protect his own.

“It was going to become public and Tiger went out of his way to make sure that nobody knew what was going on with Earl—the womanizing, the drinking,” recalled Los Angeles Times reporter Thomas Bonk. “Tiger did not want any shadows on his brand. He did not want any shadows on his foundation. It drove Earl and Tiger apart at the very time when they probably should’ve been together, because Earl was finally starting to show his age and fragility.”

When Tiger won the Masters in 2005, he told the crowd that he wanted to pay special tribute to his dad, who wasn’t feeling well, and said he couldn’t wait “to get home and see him and give him a big bear hug.”

Tiger was devastated when Earl Woods died May 5, 2006, after a battle with prostate cancer. He was 74. Those close to Woods worried that he would suffer especially hard because of the guilt over having not spent that much time together for the past few years.

“That was sadness on a level that he had never felt before,” friend Amber Lauria said.

At the British Open two months later, he revealed that he felt a sense of calm, as if Pop was with him, out on the course, but also cried in both his caddy’s arms and his wife’s after he won. Four weeks later, he won the PGA Championship.

And then, in a hell of a cliffhanger, the woman whose name everyone would know by the end of 2008, Rachel Uchitel, sat down in front of the camera.

Tiger Part I is streaming now on HBO Max and On Demand. Part II premieres Sunday, Jan. 17, at 9 p.m. PT/6 ET on HBO and HBO Max.

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