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Jeff Benedict discusses new HBO doc based on 'Tiger Woods'

At a certain point towards the very end of "Tiger," a new documentary about the life of golfer Tiger Woods airing in two parts on HBO on Sunday and Jan. 17, it might occur to viewers in southeastern Connecticut that someone is missing.

That would be Jeff Benedict.

After all, the film is based on "Tiger Woods," the New York Times bestselling book co-written by Benedict, a Waterford native and resident, and his friend and fellow journalist Armen Keteyian. Both men are two of the executive producers on the film and were involved throughout the process, though not as writers. Keteyian appears multiple times for onscreen interviews during the film. But not Benedict.

"Thank you, COVID!" Benedict says, laughing. He's speaking by phone earlier this week from his office in the Garde Arts Center Cottage in New London. "I was supposed to be the last person interviewed for the documentary. But because of the virus, it was no longer practical to do that."

But Benedict is not complaining. There are much harsher realities associated with the pandemic, he says, and in the context of the documentary, he thinks "Tiger" came out wonderfully whether he had any screen time or not.

"(Directors) Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamachek are so good at what they do," Benedict says. "They really delivered, and Armen and I couldn't be happier."

Heineman (an Academy Award-nominated and Emmy-winning director) and Hamachek (an Emmy-nominated director) helmed "Tiger" for HBO Sports and Jigsaw Productions in association with Our Time Projects. The documentary will also be available for streaming on HBO Max.

An advance screening of "Tiger," which unfolds over three mesmerizing hours and includes plenty of moving and emotional peaks and valleys, reveals the film to accurately reflect the narrative themes and development of Keteyian's and Benedict's book. Those include the close relationship between Woods and his obsessive father, Earl Woods; the golfer's stunning focus and unparalleled dominance in the sport; issues of race and hypocrisy in perhaps the "whitest" of all sports; an ascending level of celebrity that crashed in a destroyed marriage; sex scandals and drug addiction; and recovery, a return to form, and a seemingly balanced and healthy life.

The film also fleshes out the book material with additional sources, plenty of never-before-seen footage, and details of events that have happened in the golfer's life subsequent to the 2018 publication of "Tiger Woods."

Relentless pressure

It's well known that Woods was raised from infancy by a father — and, to a certain extent, a mother — whose sole focus was to make their only child the greatest golfer of all time. And Earl, a Black man and former Green Beret whose job in numerous tours of Vietnam was particularly dangerous, firmly believed Tiger was destined to change the world in the manner of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela.

If this unyielding stess sounds familiar to other incidents of athletic child prodigies "over-coached" by parents, Tiger's situation, the book and film say, was different because of the young athlete's genuine passion.

"One of the things important in this story is that Tiger genuinely loved and loves golf," Benedict says. "Some athletes under extreme parental pressure end up resenting the game. Andre Agassi hated tennis, for example. That didn't happen with Tiger, and so what happened is that golf, interestingly enough, became a sort of life preserver. He's also extremely smart and gifted. I genuinely believe that, had he chosen to be a mathematician, for example, he would have been one of the finest in the world. At the same time, he faced incredibly unrealistic expectations from not just his father but ultimately his fans and his sponsors. Despite how incredibly good he was, it became too much."

Behind the scenes

As with the book, Woods and his immediate family did not participate in the making of the documentary. But among the dozens who do appear are Woods's former longtime caddie/close friend, Steve Williams; multiple major championships winner Nick Faldo; Pete McDaniels, a close friend and biographer of Earl Woods; Dina Parr, who was Tiger's first love; and numerous journalists who extensively covered Woods's career or focused on the sordid aspects of Woods's downfall. There are also sources in the film who wouldn't be interviewed for the book — particularly Rachel Uchitel, the woman at the center of Woods' sex scandal.

Benedict observes that the subject matter only benefits from the respective qualities and nuances of two different artistic mediums.

"The filmmakers had the freedom to do and go wherever they wanted and were able to go places we couldn't go in the book," he says. "And that's excellent. In some parts, they were able to interview really key people who were mentioned in the book but chose at that time not to be interviewed. Also, there were people who were interviewed in the book who, in terms of really opening up, took it to another level.

He references Uchitel, saying, "She plays an important part in the book but wouldn't speak to us — and we tried, believe me. It's a win all around when they choose to participate later on."

Benedict explains it is his and Keteyian's policy — the pair has also collaborated on "The System," a book about college football — to be extremely respectful if a prospective source doesn't want to talk.

"People have all kinds of reasons for choosing not to speak to a journalist," Benedict says. "We have good relationships with both the people who did speak to us for the book and those that didn't.  If you treat them with respect when they tell you no, then maybe that becomes helpful when the time comes to make the film."

Ultimately, the goal is to present the material as accurately and intriguingly as possible regardless of the medium.

"Whether a book or a film, they both have the same basic premise," Benedict says. "When you're reading, you have to use your imagination more because you're looking at words on a page. It can go places a documentary can't go. At the same time, with a documentary, you're seeing people and action up close. Either way, different sets of emotion are triggered, and you absorb the material in different ways."

One smooth thing about the documentary that viewers might not notice is that there's no narrator. And in fact there are no screenwriters credited; Benedict and Keteyian's roles were as consultants and, to an extent, as overseers to the original material.

"There is no script, and that's very powerful," Benedict says. "It shows how really good Matt and Matt are at what they do. The story tells itself. Armen and I worked on the film, but there's a big difference between producing and directing, and the directors have a huge incluence on what you see onscreen. Plus, that Jigsaw Production and (fellow executive producer) Alex Gibney were involved made us want to do this project. If you're making a documentary, working with these people is like having Ron Howard or Steven Spielberg direct the film of your novel." 

Compare and contrast

Since "Tiger Woods" was published, Benedict focused on writing a book published in 2020 called "The Dynasty," an in-depth examination of the relentless excellence of the New England Patriots under the leadership trident of quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick, and franchise owner Robert Kraft. The connectives between Woods and Brady — each of whom is generally regarded as the Greatest of All Time (GOAT) in his sport — are very clear to Benedict.

"We're talking about very rarified air," says Benedict, who is currently writing a biography of basketball star and presumptive third GOAT Lebron James. "Yes, Brady is just as much an outlier in football as Woods is in golf. Tiger won the Masters in 2019 after all he'd been through; Brady is performing at an unbelievable level at 43. These things are not supposed to happen. Genius is a word thrown around all too often, but it's like Thomas Edison said: genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent persperation.

"That's what you see in (Woods and Brady): relentless commitment to practice and craft. In all the team sports, I'd say playing quarterback is the closest position to what a golfer has to do. There's a solitude and focus that's much more mental than physical."

'Why' is the question

One difference in writing "The Dynasty" and "Tiger Woods" is that Benedict had plenty of personal access to Brady whereas the golfer refused to be interviewed.

"Obviously, that's a very different situation," Benedict says, "but the one thing that's the same is you always have to focus on the point of view of the subject. That can be really challenging if you don't have access. I could ask Brady what he was thinking in a certain situation and expect some reliability in his answer. As a writer, I'm always more interested in thoughts and feelings than action because you can see the action. So when the subject doesn't give you access to his or her mind and heart, it becomes more difficult.

"As a biographer, the who, what, when and where — those key journalistic questions — are pretty easy to answer. Why is much harder if you don't have access, so you have to get access to people who DO know. I think we did that with 'Tiger Woods,' and the film brings even more of that."

Benedict is very proud of the book and the documentary. And part of what makes him so good at what he does is his genuine concern for the subjects he writes about. "Tiger" ends on an uplifting note, with the golfer walking triumphantly off an 18th hole with his young son. The image is hopeful without making any great pronouncements.

"I'm uncomforable speculating on life's big questions and whether Tiger is happy," Benedict says, choosing his words carefully. "I can only go by what I see. Clearly, of late, he appears to be a very involved father who has taken an in-depth interest in his son and daughter. It's hard to say because Tiger has closed that part of his life off, and that's important. I can see why someone would want to protect that."

 

If you watch

What: "Tiger," a two-part documentary film based on the 2018 bestselling biography "Tiger Woods" co-written by Waterford's Jeff Benedict and Armen Keteyian

When: Part one airs at 9 p.m. Sunday, and part two at 9 p.m. Jan. 17

Where: HBO; subsequent streaming on HBO MAX

For more information: hbo.com, jeffbenedict.com

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