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

The two-part HBO documentary digs into the super-star athlete's all-too-human frailties and the media frenzy that erupted when Tiger Woods was revealed to be a serial cheater.

By Natalie Finn Jan 18, 2021 8:00 AMTags
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 a scapegoat for the athlete's philandering ways and is now seeking to reclaim her story. Here are the biggest revelations from Tiger:

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.

Some Gain, Lots of Pain

In 2006, just weeks after burying his father, Woods toured a remote Navy SEALS training facility in La Posta, Calif., and—with no small nod to Earl's Army career as a Green Beret, which included two tours of Vietnam—decided he wanted to experience what it was like. Going through the combat simulator known as the Kill House and other exercises, the trainers didn't let up on their celebrity guest. Already plagued by knee and back issues, Woods ended up being told he needed major knee reconstruction, that his ACL was nonexistent. 

But Woods didn't want to have surgery that would waylay him for a considerable amount of time with the 2008 U.S. Open just ahead.

Sin City

Early in his career, Las Vegas became a go-to destination for Woods to unwind, a place where, as "former VIP host" Tiffany Masters described it, "We catered to Tiger. We would spoil him. We would say, you're like a prince—and basically free to do whatever you want."

But, hanging out with the likes of larger-than-life personalities such as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, Woods was the member of the entourage less accustomed to partying, Masters said.

Armen Keteyian, co-author with Jeff Benedict of the 2018 biography Tiger Woods, said that Woods even asked Jordan, "'What do I say to these women?' And Michael, to his ever-loving credit goes, 'You tell them you're Tiger Woods.'"

And when he got married, "Tiger didn't really slow down," Keteyian added. "His ability to live a double life, it started in Vegas."

One-Legged Golf

Woods was visibly in pain throughout the 2008 U.S. Open, but all anyone can remember is the hobbling star still managing to pull off a sudden-death win over Rocco Mediate, his 14th Major title.

Mediate joked that he even called up the devil the night before to ask for his assistance, but that the devil told him of Tiger, "He's already with me, had him since he was a kid."


Enquiring Minds

Former National Enquirer editor Neal Boulton recalls the night in 2007 at the tabloid's headquarters in Boca Raton, Fla., when the editor in chief told him he had their biggest scoop in years.

It wasn't just that Woods frequented Vegas and had "an insatiable appetite for women." Rather, Boulton said, it was that he had been having a steamy affair with Mindy Lawton, a hostess at Perkins Restaurant & Bakery (who was named back in 2009 when Woods' philandering came to light), a homey establishment that he and Elin frequented with their daughter, Sam. Some encounters took place at Woods' home when Elin was out of town.

Enquirer reporters started trailing him, and one night followed him to a church parking lot, where he proceeded to have sex with Lawton. According to Boulton, one reporter picked up the tampon Lawton had discarded out the car window and kept it as proof of what he'd witnessed.

Reached for comment, Woods' camp sought to make the story go away—and they succeeded, instead making a deal with the Enquirer, which agreed to a "catch and kill" (promising not to publish) in exchange for Woods appearing on the cover of fellow American Media Inc.-owned publication Men's Fitness.

Shaky Foundation

Tiger Woods scribe Armen Keteyian said one of Woods' greatest gifts was his ability to compartmentalize. In 2009, winning again after recovering from knee surgery, welcoming son Charlie, his second child with Elin, that February and bouncing from woman to woman, he was "living four, five, six, seven lives at a time," the writer recalled.

He started hiring madams to arrange dates for him, "every couple of months...it could be up to 10 girls at a time....young college-cutie types, preferably blonde," shared former madam Michelle Braun (heard but not on camera in the HBO series). But recalling some of the last times he came to town, Tiffany Masters said that he had gone from being all "bright-eyed and big smiles" to there being "a sadness about him."

The Other Woman

Speaking out for the first time in 10 years since being labeled "Tiger Woods' mistress" in the celebrity-scandal history books, Rachel Uchitel described meeting Woods—at the Griffin Club in New York, where she was a manager—and having sex with him for the first time in Orlando after he asked her to fly down for a visit. She admitted being seduced by his celebrity, thinking to herself afterward, "How am I ever gonna be with a mere mortal ever again? So many people put him on such a pedestal, and here he was in my bed, and he was my Tiger."

He referred to their time together, Uchitel said, as "plugging in," time for him to recharge from the pressures of the rest of his life. 

She recalled telling him once, as she was about to fly home, that she'd miss him and not being together was difficult. To which he replied, "'You need to learn to compartmentalize your feelings. Push them off to the side and think about something else."

Catch and Thrill

The Enquirer didn't lay off just because the company got its Men's Fitness cover. Once they got wind of Rachel Uchitel's existence, they were hungry for photographic proof.

So, a reporter traveled to Melbourne where Tiger was playing in the 2009 Australian Masters that November. At the same time, Uchitel says that Tiger had insisted she join him in Australia, that he couldn't play if she wasn't there. His team got her a room on a different floor, she explained.

But when she first arrived at the hotel, she wanted to see Woods right away—and a reporter got in the elevator with her and watched Uchitel get out and head into Tiger's suite on the top floor. And that was that.

The pair denied the affair when asked, but eyes didn't deceive.

When Woods got home, he told Elin that the Enquirer was about to run a false story about him, and he could prove to her it wasn't true. He gave her his phone and Elin proceeded to have a 30-minute conversation with Rachel, in which Tiger's mistress completely denied the affair allegations.

Already distrustful of the tabloids, Elin was inclined to believe her husband. So when the story came out, it caused barely a ripple.

All Fall Down

Two days later, on Thanksgiving, Nov. 26, 2009, Elin waited till Tiger was going to sleep and texted Rachel, "When am I going to see you again?" After she replied, Rachel's phone rang, and it was Elin, saying "'I knew it was you,'" Uchitel recalls.

By the next morning, it was all over the news: Woods had been injured in a single car crash outside his Isleworth mansion, his Cadillac Escalade having hit a fire hydrant and a tree. They needed to pull Woods out through the window and he appeared to be in and out of consciousness, news outlets around the world breathlessly reported.

Tiger recalls the media frenzy, news broadcasters referring to diagrams and—once reports got out that the crash had followed a fight with his wife—animated reenactments of what may have gone down. And then, one reporter at the scene held up a copy of the National Enquirer.

After it all blew up in Woods' face, Uchitel couldn't get in touch with him, but the paparazzi were all over her, grilling her about the affair, calling her a home wrecker. Eventually he reached out, informing her that she'd be hearing from his legal team to discuss a settlement and confidentiality agreement. "Get as much as you can," Uchitel said he told her. She muses now, "That was his only way to love me at the time."

Mixed Messages

Some people close to Tiger thought his public apology, given at a Feb. 19, 2010, press conference, was a mistake.

"I think that was a bad move on his agent's part," family friend Pete McDaniel said. "I think I would have had him read a statement, [such as] 'Whatever's going on between my wife and I, that's my business. It's not yours. And if I lost some fans or endorsements, so be it.'"

"I felt real sadness," McDaniel recalled. "I felt sadness for Tida [who sat in the front row and gave her son a big hug when he was finished speaking]. As much pride as she took in her son, how she loves Tiger, I knew it was very hard. And then I felt for his children. They were too young to really know what was going on, but eventually they were going to find out...But the main person I felt sad for was Elin, because he had hurt her mightily."

It's Over

The private world Elin thought was hers and Tiger's alone was shattered. She swiftly moved into a nearby rental house with the kids, and friend Westfall recalls how "she just sat down amid the moving boxes with her stuff. Sam came over and said, 'What's wrong, Mommy?' 'Mommy's got a booboo.' She said, 'Where? I'll kiss it and make it feel better.' And Elin said, 'It's in Mommy's heart.'"

As divorce proceedings got underway, while Uchitel had been labeled a "home wrecker," Elin—the recipient of a reported nine-figure settlement—was accused of being a "gold digger."

Cutting Ties

Friend Amber Lauria said she repeatedly tried to get through to Tiger after the scandal, but his phone was shut off. "The longer it went on I realized I had been completely cut out of his life," she said.

And Steve Williams, who'd been with him since the beginning, was fired in 2011 after agreeing to caddie for a friend during the break of indeterminate length that Tiger took after the 2010 Masters, where he finished a disappointing fourth. Williams had been warned that would be the case, but he was honestly surprised that Woods actually did it—and by what came next.

"When he fired me, I thought he was firing me as a golf caddy, not firing me as a friend," the New Zealander said. "Tiger was the best man at my wedding. I didn't think we'd have no communication for the rest of our life. That just didn't even enter my mind. To this day, I find that a hard pill to swallow, someone he spent 13 years with...the guy can't even speak to you." 

Soldiering On, Barely Holding It Together

After suffering an injury that brought him to his knees mid-swing at the 2013 Barclays tournament in August following one of the best-ever starts to a year he'd ever had, observers who'd been following his whole career started to see the mere mortal underneath the armor.

"'Everybody else still wants to see golf's god, and  I can't give them that, 'cause I'm just a man,'" New York Times writer Karen Crouse surmised what was going on in his mind while his physical ailments were catching up with him. "And I think that recognition broke him mentally."

By 2016 he had had three back surgeries, and though he traveled to Augusta, he was in too much pain to play in the 2017 Masters. He thought seriously about retiring.

The Bitter End?

Then, on May 29, 2017, he was arrested for driving under the influence of opioid painkillers and four other prescription drugs, including Xanax and Ambien. And promptly, all of his adoring admirers in the media who once hailed him as the second coming were eulogizing his career, insisting it was time for him to retire.

Woods agreed to enter a diversion program, after which the charge would eventually be dropped.

Friends and sports writers concluded in hindsight that his unparalleled mental toughness on the course never translated to his personal life, that he had never really dealt with outside issues, instead always choosing to power through on the course. Facing the possibility of retirement, Woods would have to figure out how to finally deal.

Everyone Loves a Comeback

But what do you know? As soon as there were whisperings of Woods possibly returning to competition after healing from lumbar fusion surgery... the sports world was stoked to see him tee off at the Hero World Challenge in 2017, 301 days since he'd last played in a pro tournament.

Who said anything about retirement?!

Now his observers sensed a joy that hadn't been there in years, a sense of gratitude in how he carried himself. And that's how he felt, playing without intense pain for the first time in ages.

"I don't need to win again," he told reporters, but "I really want to."

Full Circle

Tiger's years-in-the-making resurgence was finally complete when he won the 2019 Masters, his first Major championship in almost 11 years and the site of his first Major win at the tender age of 21. Better yet, his mom and his kids were right there, cheering him on.

Now, the narrative of a washed-up fallen star playing past his prime was a Cinderella story, "a return to glory." 

"A lot of people would spin it, like he was different man now, he's the conquering hero," McDaniel said. "But these are the same people that when he was riding high, they were pulling for him to fall. And when he failed, they jumped on him with both feet. And when he rose again, all of a sudden he is a virtuous man now. Which to me, is bulls--t. He's a human being, with frailties like everyone else. The problem is, we always tried to make him out to be more than he is—and that goes all the way back to Earl."

But whatever people may have been expecting from him at any stage of the game, they got all that and more—and there was only one Tiger Woods along the way.

Tiger Part I and Part II are streaming now on HBO Max and On Demand.