Can Sean Foley turn the tables and help restore Tiger Woods to greatness?

Sean Foley
Ben Van Hook
"People call Tiger the 'chosen one.' But he chose to be the one. It wasn't like at the moment of conception the creator said, 'You're the one.'"

Sean Foley is not like other golf gurus. His influences are less Penick and Leadbetter and more Gandhi, Jung, and Jay-Z. With one of the most nimble minds in golf, Foley, 36, has already distinguished himself as an instructor for Hunter Mahan, Sean O'Hair and Justin Rose. But the Toronto native reached a new level of prominence when he took on Tiger Woods in August. Foley's new mission: Help the slumping Woods begin winning again—while ignoring the critics who call Foley a swing-theory thief with a super-sized ego. Foley resolves to be his own man. "I don't really care if [other] instructors think I'm good or not," he says. In a revealing interview, Foley sermonizes over his life, his love of music, and why he'd bet his house on Tiger—literally.

What, in simple terms, are you trying to get Tiger to do with his swing?
Simplify it. Minimalist theory. Get rid of all the unnecessary pieces and get to the causes instead of trying to fix the effects.

What do you say when your critics argue that Tiger isn't showing improvement fast enough?
The first time we worked together was at the PGA Championship. If he had won the tournament there is no way that I would have stood there on Sunday night and said that it was because of the things that we worked on. It doesn't matter if it's my method or Butch's [Harmon] or Hank's [Haney], Tiger is going to win tournaments [because of] what we tell him, and sometimes in spite of it. There was nothing about what he was doing in his previous swing that made any sense to me. But I know if he repeats something 500 times he'll figure out how to sequence it and make it work. But there is so much more to the game than ballstriking. His ability to break down holes and find angles to score is unmatched.

Golf Channel's Brandel Chamblee told us that you have Tiger compressing the ball more, and that your tweaks are designed to help Tiger trap the ball and hit it lower. 'I just don't get it,' Chamblee said. 'You have to hit the ball high in majors.' What does he not get?
I wasn't aware that compressing the ball more made the ball go lower. Actually, if [Tiger] moves better laterally with his lower body, and we are keeping his head still, that will create more of a frontal plane or side tilt away from the target, which will shallow out his attack angle. And since the hands are forward at impact, we are actually maintaining the club's loft at impact. To be honest, we have had a more difficult time hitting it lower with what he is learning. Because his weight is forward, and he is leaning the shaft with his head still in place from where it started at setup, there is no rate of closure in the clubface. Hands forward equals face slightly open; hips forward on top of [the] ball shallows [his] attack angle and has him hitting it higher than ever. People need to get their facts right. This is science, not opinion.

Do you expect Tiger to return to the form he showed from 2000-02?
I don't like to project into the future, but how fast we forget that this guy won 14 majors by the age of 34. If he plays until he's 50, he's got 15 more years and 60 majors left. You don't think he's going to get four majors with that many chances? Mathematically, he's proven that he can do it. He struggled for a year and his life changed in many different ways. I think he's going to come out of all of this a better person and player.

If you had to bet your house on it, would you wager that Tiger wins more majors than Jack?
I would bet my house, which would be made easier by the housing market in Florida. [Laughs] It's amazing how fast people forget. One year of poor play and people forget he won four in a row. If he played in majors until he was 46, when Jack won his last, he would still have 48 more attempts at winning five.

How has your life changed since you started working with Tiger?
I definitely have more critics than I knew. But that doesn't really bother me. The beauty of working with Tiger is that he lives three minutes from me [near Orlando]. So I typically drive over to Isleworth a couple of days a week to meet with him for an hour and a half to two hours. How it will go in tournaments this season? I have no idea. But I think I have a good idea of my balance of happiness and it hasn't done anything to change that.

How are you going to keep your other top players happy while trying to tend to Tiger's needs?
I've been with all my guys for a while now and they know the type of guy that I am. The benefit of having Tiger and Justin here in Orlando is that we can do most of our work off the golf course. Whereas Hunter is in Dallas, O'Hair's in Philadelphia and Amesy [Stephen Ames] is in Calgary. So the brunt of my time on the road is spending time with those players. At tournaments my players will have the ability to play practice rounds together. Tiger is a hero of sorts to most players on Tour, so I think it's a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Is it possible to act the same way with all of your players?
You can be the same from the standpoint of holding them to a standard of ethics and values. With Rosey we might talk a little bit more. With Hunter we might talk a little bit less. With Tiger I might only speak when he asks me a question. O'Hair wants to talk sometimes and other times he doesn't—so it's about understanding the different personalities.

Do you feel that there's a target on you now because you're working with Tiger? You didn't do yourself any favors when you said some less than flattering things about other coaches, including Haney, in a September interview.
Sure. I don't regret anything that I said about Hank. I've said some things that I can't take back. It's just that my back was pushed up against a wall so I reacted perhaps in an unprofessional manner. But I'm not going to give anyone credit for how hard I've worked.

Do you want the respect of your teaching peers? Do you care?
No. All I can worry about is the performance of my players. My ultimate goal is to get respect from human beings for being one. I want to help people be more content. So I don't really care if these golf instructors think I'm good or not. When a guy talks about me as an amazing swing coach that's probably not 100 percent true. And it's also not true when they say that I'm just a branding machine and that I have politicized my way to the top.

But don't you like having a modicum of fame and celebrity?
There is nothing about it that interests me. I have no interest in having Sean Foley Golf Academies all over the world and being a multimillionaire but not seeing my son play in his soccer game for two years. When kids come up to me for an autograph I just shake their hands. I don't sign autographs and I never will. All anybody is trying to do when they ask for an autograph is have contact with you. So why sign their hat when you can find out a little about them?

Haney once said, 'I always felt like I knew Tiger from observing. I did not feel I knew him from knowing him.' Has that been true in your case?
Hank built most of his career around Tiger. I found most of that interview to be unprofessional. I don't understand how, if you don't get to know the person, how you can teach them. There is the business aspect of it where you have to keep things separate from that standpoint, but if you're spending eight hours a day with this person you have to have some things in common. There was no way I was ever going to be able to stand on the range with anyone who was not kind to people or rude just to make my career better. I could care less about it. There has to be a semblance of ethics and values in the person. It's interesting to see how hard Tiger works. How kind he is to the people at Isleworth. He's a solid guy.

If Tiger weren't a nice guy, you wouldn't work with him?
No. Why would I spend so much time around someone that I don't have anything in common with? He's just like anybody else—when his daughter runs up to him he smiles bigger than he does when he makes a putt to win a major.

What was the process of landing Tiger as a student? A lot of teachers offered their services.
There was no solicitation on my part. I'm a huge fan. If he wasn't going against one of my guys, I was rooting for him. Obviously it was a personal goal to work with Tiger Woods because he is arguably the greatest to play the game. As an instructor you're going to learn a great deal by working with the best. People call Tiger the "chosen one." But it should be "he chose it." He chose to be the one. He's not the chosen one. It wasn't like at the moment of conception the creator said, "You're the one." He chose it.

Critics say you have a big ego. Do you?
What is ego? Do egos have to always be labeled negatively? As a teacher you have to have confidence that you can help your students. I'm going to be exactly who I am and if my players don't accept that then that means we weren't meant to work together. I'm not going to be who Sean O'Hair wants me to be and who Tiger wants me to be. Are there things I would like to change about myself? Absolutely. But I don't have a chip on my shoulder as much as I used to.

Where did that chip come from?
I was a short kid with acne and people were cruel and that kind of gave me an "I'm going to show you" attitude. But the problem with that mentality is that it's not a positive energy. You're not doing it for the purity of doing it, but doing it to prove to people that you could do it.

How did a white kid from suburban Toronto come to love hip-hop?
Hip-hop has been a serious foundation of my life since I was 10. My mom is from Guyana in the West Indies, so I grew up listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley. From reggae came hip-hop. It's something that I connected with—poetry in a street form. I always thought it was impressive to see guys from rough neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Harlem and the Bronx turn into multimillionaires or just conscious-minded artists with a sincere belief in what they were doing.

You like to freestyle rap while a chiropractor friend of yours, Craig Davies, mixes on his turntables. Have you put any songs to paper?
Back in college [at Tennessee State] I used to write all the time. But I just did that for me. All the music that I listen to is positive and uplifting. I looked up to guys like Guru, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Nas and Jay-Z. It's how I unload.

You've always said that golf would never define you. Do you still feel the same after taking on Tiger?
Golf instruction is what I do for a living, but it doesn't define who I am. I'm not here to revolutionize golf instruction. I'm here to touch the individual lives of the people that I work with, [while] recognizing the old saying, "To whom much is given, much is expected." I was raised on the idea that when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night the goal is to leave the world in a better place than you found it.

You like to quote Churchill, Gandhi, King. But what hip-hop lyric is relevant to teaching Tiger?
"I'm different, I can't base what I'm gonna be off of what everybody isn't." [Jay-Z, from his song, 'So Ambitious']

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