Tiger Woods’ rise and fall in the world of golf is an innately American story, sitting perfectly at the intersection of our love of watching an underdog succeed and our love of watching a chosen one topple. Woods has been both, a golf prodigy from age 2 whose unparalleled early success was marred by the 2009 discovery of a string of affairs while married to ex-wife Elin Nordegren, with whom he shares kids Sam and Charlie. Followed up with a DUI arrest, a divorce, and dozens of salacious headlines, Woods was put in the celebrity doghouse until his miraculous 2019 Masters win — and as new HBO documentary Tiger shows it, perhaps for all the wrong reasons. It’s no secret that media coverage in America tends to be cloaked in pearl-clutching sex negativity that both amplifies and caricatures stories like Woods’ extramarital affairs, with a former National Enquirer editor noting in the film that there were more New York Post covers dedicated to the Woods sex scandal than there were to 9/11. While late-night hosts were making jokes about whether or not the athlete was a “tiger” in bed, the real point — as highlighted by Woods’ exes Rachel Uchitel, Jamie Jungers, and more — went more or less untouched.
Watching part two of HBO’s Tiger with my boyfriend, an avid golfer and longtime Woods fan, there was one moment when his face fell. It wasn’t Jay Leno whipping out his “Tiger Tote Board” counting how many women had come forward about Woods (14, at the count we saw), and it wasn’t the phone call from the anonymous former madam describing Woods requesting up to 10 escorts at a time with a preference for “girl next door” types. It was when we saw Jamie Jungers, the first woman to give a live interview as one of Woods’ mistresses, open up about their relationship.
Jungers said she was on the air to correct a wide-spread headline over a picture of her face that said Woods had paid her: “I got nothing out of this relationship but a broken heart,” she told Meredith Vieira, who then asked whether Jungers loved him. “I did.”
With only a surface-level knowledge of Woods’ 2009 scandal, it would be easy to believe the golfer lied to his wife and had a long string of hookups with anonymous women, some of whom wanted money. The reality, as told by Woods’ exes now, couldn’t be further from the truth.
Rachel Uchitel, who has had her name most enduringly linked to Woods as the first mistress to be found out by Nordegren and the media, has also faced the worst public abuse, fielding death threats and harassment in the decade since the news broke. But Uchitel’s story, like Jungers, only dismantles the media image of Woods as sex-crazed and his mistresses as walking temptations with price tags.
“He would refer to it as plugging in. He would tell me that when he saw me he felt like he could plug in and get recharged,” Uchitel says of their time together. “I would sometimes just sit next to him for hours while he would fall asleep next to me. And when he got up, I think he allowed himself to be a little kid. I mean it sounds kind of odd. He would eat cereal and he would watch his cartoons. And he was like a fountain, he just wanted to talk and talk and talk. He told me a lot about his childhood, his dad, and that he was sick of trying to hide who he was.”
The Thanksgiving before news of his affairs went public, Uchitel says Woods was texting her throughout the day about how much they had to be grateful for, having just dodged one near-disaster with the Enquirer running a story exposing their affair (the article went largely ignored).
“I get this text message from Tiger saying ‘you were the only one I ever loved,'” Uchitel recalls. “I remember just feeling that things had never been better between us.”
Of course, Uchitel would soon find out that there were many more women she had not known about. And before she could even privately process that betrayal, she’d been publicly cast as just another woman who slept with the sex-hungry, immoral Tiger Woods.
While the media paraded these women as entertainment, most notably in Howard Stern’s 2010 “Tiger Woods Mistress Beauty Pageant,” which involved several of his exes appearing in bikinis and being asked questions about their sex lives, the reality of what emerged was a number of heartbroken women who’d shared intimate relationships with Woods in which they were lied to or misled.
“He always had his hand intertwined with mine,” the HBO doc shows another of Woods’ exes saying, at which point I thought my boyfriend might cry. “[He’d say] ‘we will always be together.'”
Tiffany Masters, a former host who used to set up private parties for Woods in Vegas, also told HBO that she believed any sexual activity between Woods and these women was the least relevant part of the story, and that his exes were indicating a much more serious pattern of emotional involvement.
“It seemed like everybody was focused on the sex part. But that’s not what busted him. Ultimately what took Tiger down was emotions,” she explained. “These weren’t girls that he was just hooking up with once and then tossing away. He had relationships with these girls. He must have done something to make them feel very special.”
As with the past few weeks’ unfolding Armie Hammer scandal involving screenshots about sexual violence, cannibalism, and emotional abuse, the most eye-catching factor is not the most important, or most indicative of character, when it comes to Tiger Woods. If Woods and Nordegren had been in a consensual open marriage, I’d like to think that the response to these revelations today would be very different, but I’m not sure it would.
“This is what made Tiger Woods want to leave his marriage?” one reporter shouts at Uchitel as she tries to leave her house in 2010, pointing the camera her way and gesturing at her body as the poor woman tries to go to work.
With its emphasis on who these women were and what he did with them, the media indicated that it was Woods’ preference for these types of women and that kind of sex that deviated from who we thought he was. In truth, it was how Woods treated these women that stood in stark contrast to his public persona, and in which we should have been disappointed all along.
Before you go, click here to see celebrities who fight hard to keep their partners and kids away from paparazzi.