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

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

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"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.'"
Ben Van Hook

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']