Questions for ... Sean Foley

Questions for … Sean Foley

Sean Foley began working with Tiger Woods in 2010.
David Walberg/SI

You’re about to kick off your first full year as Tiger’s swing coach, after taking over for Hank Haney last summer. Criticism comes with the job. Are you ready for it?

I only worry about how I feel about myself. People have the right to their own opinion, and this is a country where freedom of speech is allowed. That being said, I believe people treat people the way they feel about themselves. I learned a long time ago that criticism is a compliment if it is being made by someone who doesn’t know or care about you. So if it’s not my wife, brother, or parents, I could care less what people say.

Brandel Chamblee told Golf Magazine that Haney and Tiger ruined the greatest swing in history. How do you know when you’re not hurting a player?
It’s a guessing game. Some of the younger teachers are trying to shift the paradigm in instruction by bringing in new ideas. Is it all completely right? I’m not sure. But if I can keep [student] Sean O’Hair from doing the wrong thing, he’s probably going to play pretty good. Because he’s right in so many ways.

What can Tiger expect from you? Who are your coaching role models?
Guys like John Wooden and Phil Jackson. They took extremely good basketball players and helped them reach their fullest potential. I’ve heard some of Wooden’s players at UCLA say he helped them become better and more organized men. I wouldn’t say that I’m a golf instructor. I’m a coach.

How do you help your players set goals?
I try to help them make their objectives realistic. What I want for all the players that I work with is for them to be content and at peace with the adversity that they go through on the course. I’m very much a co-pilot. I’m not going to say to any one of my players that it’s my way or the highway. But there are certain scientific things that I won’t sway on.

Tiger’s challenges in 2011 go beyond adjusting to a new swing. He also faces a new generation of players who want his throne — like Martin Kaymer, who just leapfrogged Woods in the world rankings. What do you think of the new young guns?
They aren’t scared. It has to do with the Tiger Woods effect. Kids who would have played other sports became interested in the game from watching Tiger. Look down to the junior golf level, and these kids are longer than PGA Tour players. So we’re looking at a generation of young players who would have become quarterbacks or forwards in basketball — and they’re bringing 6-4, 220 [pound] frames to golf with the ability to create more force and velocity from what we were used to. That was the difference with Tiger. When he came around in 1997, there weren’t as many great players as there are now, especially from a power standpoint. Now there are 30 to 40 guys that are power players.

What don’t you like about life on Tour?
There can be a little bit of entitlement. Some of the guys have forgotten how fortunate they are to do what they do for a living. Another thing that bugs me are the coaches who believe that they are more important than the players. They think that they are the actual talent. I’m paid a percentage of what the player earns, and that percentage in most cases is lower than the caddies. So I know my place in how I help my players. I’ve had times where a player has gone out and absolutely missed the cut by doing what I tell them. In most cases these guys were on the PGA Tour before we started coaching them. So as far as the development is concerned, they were 95 percent to their potential when we got to them.

You love hip-hop music and Bob Marley. What influence did Marley have on you?
Marley was talking about a world of materialism and superficiality in “Redemption Song,” where he says, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” That was my first introduction to philosophy. There was no doubt that he was a philosopher.

How much would it cost a guy off the street to have a lesson with you?
The highest I’ve ever charged for an hour lesson was $250. I’m giving a golf lesson. A lawyer can charge a $1,000 an hour because they are saving a corporation millions. I know there are people who are working as hard as me or harder for $14 an hour.

You do things your own way. You even run barefoot, right?
Two days a week I run barefoot, and two days I run in Nike Frees. I’ve always loved to run but it always hurt my feet, my ankles and my knees. I’ve helped a lot of people hit golf balls without back pain, so I started researching the biomechanics of running and all the books I read said that running barefoot was the best thing for my body.

What do you want your legacy to be when it’s all done for you in this business?
If you were sitting in on your own funeral and you were able to stand next to your wife and son, what would you want to be said about you? I think about that all the time. It’s not morbid. It’s just a reality. Forty years from now if somebody walks up to my son and says to him what a great swing coach his dad was, I’ve missed the point big time.