Questions for ... Sean Foley

Questions for … Sean Foley

Sean O'Hair is one of Sean Foley's pupils competing at the Masters.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Sean Foley, a 35-year-old Toronto native, is one of the most eclectic swing instructors on the PGA Tour — combining lessons from human kinetics, physics, psychology, philosophy and hip-hop music, to maintain some of the best golf swings in the game: Hunter Mahan, Sean O’Hair, Stephen Ames, Justin Rose and Parker McLachlin.

This week you’re at the Masters with Mahan and O’Hair. How do you prepare them for a week like this?
At this point I’m just here to support my guys and let them know that everything in their games is on point and good to go. The way I prepare is by coming out three weeks in a row on Tour to get them prepared for now. Working with them Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Masters weeks isn’t going to cut it.

What are some of the specifics things that you’ve been working on with players in preparation for this week?
Sean and I have been working hard on getting him to be comfortable with hitting a draw off the tee. At Augusta, holes 2, 3, 5, 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 15 and 17 are right-to-left shots off the tee. So we’ve been working on that for weeks and weeks.

How do you get a player who has been hitting a power fade to hit a draw?
The problem with draws sometimes is that guys hang back and they wipe it and it curves too much. So we always talk about compression and really hitting it solid. We hit what we call a hands-ahead draw: basically the hands are ahead at impact, which means that the clubface is open and, because the clubface is open, the ball is going to start right. If the face is open 3 degrees at impact, it’s going to have an inside-to-out path and draw every time. It’s simple math. So we draw with the path and arc, not with the hands.

Is there anything from a teaching standpoint that you bring to bear on a player’s course strategy?
I leave that to the player and caddie. I compliment my players by getting them confident in their swings, so that they can hit the ball to all the places that they want to.

You played college golf at Tennessee State in Nashville.
I was a great ball-striker and had a good short game, but I was never really a great player. I never learned to play the game to make a score. So course management was an afterthought for me. I was more concerned with hitting the perfect shot.

Is your mentality different during a major week?
I try to treat it like any other week. Players and coaches can sometimes create too much self-induced pressure at the majors that doesn’t help their results. With Hunter and Sean we do the same drills as we would any other week. But deep down I probably get a little more excited with the atmosphere.

How do you keep your powers of swing analysis sharp?
I keep reading. I study physics and geometry and kinetics. I listen to what physios, psychologists and chiropractors have to say. In the last couple of years I’ve been really focusing on the brain and motor skills and how we learn repetitive motions properly.

You’re an outside-the-box type of guy who likes not being in the mainstream. What does that mean to you in golf terms?
To me that’s when instructors try to fix the effect without recognizing cause and effect. The mainstream tries to teach the effect and I’m talking about cause and effect. For example, when a guy is getting the club stuck behind him, some instructors will get him to do a drill to get his arms in front of his body. But the fact of the matter is that his arms aren’t pinned behind his body because of his arms.

You started reading 'The Golfing Machine' by Homer Kelley at the age of 15. It’s a bible for swing instructors, despite its sometimes-inscrutable prose.
Kelley does a great job of explaining the geometry and physics of the swing, but what the book lacks is that it never says anything about physiology or human beings with 650 involuntary muscles with ligaments and bone fascia. You can understand the motion on a robot all you want, but we aren’t robots. Some of our gluts don’t fire; some of our hamstrings are tighter than our quads. So for me some of Kelley’s physics is superficial to human kinetics and movement patterns and biomechanics.

So are you saying that our bodies won’t let us swing the club like Tiger Woods or Sam Snead?
Absolutely. Snead had unbelievable flexibility and was probably one of the best athletes to ever play the game. I don’t want to use him as an example for my students. Give me Jim Furyk or Steve Stricker because they are pretty normal — not crazy-athletic people — who have become top-five players in the world.

What’s your financial arrangement with your players?
It’s not a free lunch. I get a percentage of their earnings. If they don’t play well, I don’t get paid.

What’s been your teaching schedule with the players this week?
When you’re used to having four or five players, two is a breeze. I come to the course with them. We do our drills at the beginning of the week and do less as we get close to Thursday. Sean and Hunter play their practice rounds together so that makes it easy, but at Augusta teachers can’t go inside the ropes during practice. I make my observations and take notes outside of the ropes.

Drills before a round seems awfully technical. Is that good for the player?
You’re not on the range to hit great shots and look pretty. You’re on the range to get the body fired up to make all the movement patterns that it needs to make. Through the stretch of great golf that Sean had last year, he warmed before each round by hitting 90 balls worth of drills.

How do you putt those Augusta greens?
You definitely don’t want a very handsy stroke. But with them being so pure and fast I think the most important thing is to get them on line.

You’re a big hip-hop fan.
I like rappers with conscious messages, especially the Wu-Tang Clan and Gang Starr.

What are you reading?
I read seven books at a time. One that will make you laugh is 'Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son' by Michael Chabon.

What do you want to do outside of teaching the swing?
I plan in some way on being a champion of the underclass and helping the less fortunate.