Like almost everything in his life, Tiger Woods’ unravelling was captured on tape: the recording, one night in November 2009, of a neighbour calling 911 to report that a man had crashed an SUV into a fire hydrant. The golf champion had fled his Florida mansion woozy from Ambien after his wife discovered his philandering.

The makers of the HBO documentary Tiger had an almost impossibly rich choice of footage, starting with the two-year-old prodigy playing golf and scratching his ear on a daytime talk show. They have also mustered a fearsome cast of interviewees, led by an ex-caddy, an ex-girlfriend and an ex-friend of Woods, all disowned by him as he erased his old life after his disgrace. Veteran journalists fill out the picture. Woods himself refused to participate. His agent dismissed the documentary as “just another unauthorised and salacious outsider attempt”.

“Unauthorised”, of course, also means independent. This pacy, two-part, 180-minute documentary (based on the 2018 biography by Armen Keteyian and Jeff Benedict) portrays a man built for golf rather than life. But behind Woods’ story are fascinating glimpses of a richer topic: the lost US of his 1997-2009 heyday, glowing here in its bright cheerful colours, an America that now seems like another country.

Tiger is the only child of a Thai mother, Tida, and an African-American father, Earl, a Vietnam veteran said to have regularly gone behind enemy lines with dynamite. Ten-month-old Tiger watched transfixed as Earl hit golf balls into a net in the garage. Modern athletes start their careers ever younger, but hardly anyone missed more of ordinary life than Tiger. His parents treated friends, girlfriends and fun as dangerous distractions. The father anointed himself his son’s “best friend”.

Earl invented Tiger. The boy was to dominate and remake golf, the whitest of sports, in which even fans tried to dress like millionaires. As a bonus, the one-man racial mixture would also heal humanity, like Gandhi or the Buddha. “The world will be a better place to live in, by virtue of his existence and his presence,” presaged a sobbing Earl in 1996, in a speech that opens the documentary.

A teenaged superstar who looked like an athlete rather than a golfer, a triumphant young multiracial America incarnate, Tiger was Nike’s vessel to broaden the golf market to new demographics. He didn’t even need media training: Earl had taught him the upbeat empty cadences of a Nike commercial.

The footage of Tiger’s constant victories until 2008 evokes the US before the national fall. It was an era of unproblematic glorying in wealth, optimism about racial healing, and adoration of the athlete who could smash all societal barriers through individual will alone. Three of the most admired sportsmen of the 2000s were arguably Woods (who had overcome racial prejudice), the cyclist Lance Armstrong (who survived cancer) and the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (a double amputee). Tiger was the ultimate turn-of-the millennium brand, and his beautiful Swedish wife Elin a brand extension.

Being a person was harder. Tiger’s only male role model, Earl, was a war hero and indiscreet philanderer. Tiger trained with Navy Seals for Iraq-style operations, basking in the last glows of unquestioned American reverence for the military. He mused about quitting golf to join them. But the brutal training sessions helped destroy his body.

Tiger also emulated Earl’s philandering, often on visits to Las Vegas with his basketball buddy Michael Jordan — himself the main character of a recent documentary series, The Last Dance. Tiger treated his mistresses as relaxation toys. He asked one of them, Rachel Uchitel, to join him at a tournament so that he “could plug in and get recharged”. Uchitel speaks for the first time in this documentary, and she’s a star turn.

What happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas. When the National Enquirer gossip magazine outed Woods — “the squeakiest and cleanest celebrity probably on earth”, gloats bow-tied former editor Neal Boulton — there was national overreaction. Nobody should have been surprised that a man hailed as the masculine ideal had seized some of his opportunities for adultery. But the 1987-2009 period, starting with the exposure of presidential candidate Gary Hart, was the golden age of American sex scandals. A more pious nation than today’s US, suffering the fallout from the world’s first divorce boom, tried to affirm its supposed principles by casting out adulterers. Even the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, desegregated only since 1990, had the nerve to moralise: “He disappointed all of us, and more importantly our kids and grandkids.” TV shows mocked his mostly working-class “whores”.

Woods then performed the celebrity adulterer’s ritual of exoneration, giving a televised apology whose sequencing was telling. “My behaviour has caused considerable harm to my business partners. I hurt my wife, my kids, my mother . . . ” He checked into a clinic that treated “sex addiction”. Adultery, an “expert” interviewee informs us, is “a form of pain relief”.

Divorced by Elin, Woods effectively divorced almost everyone from his former life — a decision that gifted the filmmakers such well-informed interviewees. His body was so broken that even sitting was agony. He became addicted to painkillers, culminating with his arrest in 2017 for driving under medication. Surveillance footage from his cell phone shows a balding, confused middle-aged man, his belly pressed against his Nike shirt, completing a moral descent almost like Armstrong’s (banned from cycling as a dope cheat) or Pistorius’s (imprisoned for murdering his girlfriend).

Yet Tiger ends in semi-redemption. After successful back surgery, Woods won the US Masters in 2019, and collected the Presidential Medal of Freedom from his sometime business partner Donald Trump, who was then already shunned by most black athletes.

Today’s US has left Woods behind. Trump has replaced adultery as the golfing establishment’s enemy number one, and distrust of wealth is so widespread that Joe Biden has got into trouble for wearing a Rolex.

Tiger cannot quite resist the pre-written overwrought morality tale about the dangers of success. Nor can an emotionally under-developed solitary sportsman offer the depth of Jordan’s The Last Dance. But every idol illuminates the society that worships him, and this film excavates a vanished America.

‘Tiger’ is on HBO in the US and Sky/Now TV in the UK

Follow on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

Listen to our podcast Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen