Who'll be Tiger Woods's next teacher? Sean Foley seems like a great fit

Who’ll be Tiger Woods’s next teacher? Sean Foley seems like a great fit

In addition to their shared passion for golf, Sean Foley and Tiger Woods have much in common.
David Walberg/SI

The blogosphere is a weird place, particularly if your name becomes associated with the words “Tiger Woods.” (Google gives you 878,000 results when you pair “Rachel Uchitel” with “Tiger Woods.”) Ever since the golf teacher Sean Foley walked around with Woods during a practice round at the Players this month, there’s been a constant e-hum that Foley, a Canadian who lives in Florida, might succeed Hank Haney as Woods’s instructor. Never mind that Foley walked with Woods that day because Tiger was playing with Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan, both of whom study golf (and life) with Foley.

Regarding a successor to Haney, Woods said last week, “I have not made any decisions on what my next step will be.” Foley has never talked to Woods about coaching him. “If he calls me, he calls me,” Foley says. “If he doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter.”

He knows that hysteria these days is only a mouse click away. Haney got himself all churned up by the hum, but Foley’s trying not to pay attention. Easier said than done. His kid brother called him after reading a blogger who claimed that Foley was bipolar. “That explains a lot,” Kevin Foley told his bro.

As it happens, Sean Foley is not bipolar, although he does list Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela among his favorite books. He also likes Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons, but mostly for the pictures. Foley, like Hogan, is fascinated by leg action, with a particular fetish for ball flight. Ball flight, he’ll tell you, is the holy grail. Anyway, what golf teacher (aside from Haney) would not want to be Tiger’s swing coach? It’s easy to make a case for Foley. For starters, they’re contemporaries. (Foley is 35, and Woods is 34.) They’re both Nike guys. They’re both fitness buffs. Foley has read widely on Eastern religions, and Woods is an avowed Buddhist. Foley is a good ­golfer. (In a recent game he hit driver in play 14 times and hit 18 greens in regulation.) Foley is local. (He and his wife, Kate, and two-year-old son — the mighty Quinn! — live in Windermere, near the gates of Isleworth.) Tiger is a swing geek, and Foley has spent days making Belichick-like frame-by-frame studies of the great swings (Moe Norman, Mickey Wright, Woods circa 2000). Foley is as interested in physiology as he is the swing, and Woods, it would seem, has physiological issues. But maybe the best thing Foley has going for him is that his greatest interest is the mind of man. Tiger’s must be a minefield right about now.

David Leadbetter took the who-should-coach-Tiger chatter to a new level by recently nominating Foley for the job in a story in The New York Times. When Foley read that piece (somebody sent it to him), he found it flattering and a little strange. After all, when Foley was a teenager in suburban Toronto, he went to the Canadian Open, watched Leadbetter and Nick Faldo on the driving range and said to himself, “I want to be that guy.” He didn’t mean the No. 1 player in the world, but that player’s teacher.

If it happens, if Foley and Tiger become teacher and student, Faldo could have at them, from the air-conditioned comfort of the CBS broadcast tower. Johnny Miller had a field day with Woods and Haney. Borrowed from pro football, hyper­analysis has become the dessert course of the modern, mechanized, televised dinnertime game. Along the way the golf instructor, who used to be as anonymous as the baseball hitting coach, has had a big upgrade and is now (by reputation) as important to the golfer as the trainer is to the racehorse. All the player has to do is execute shots. So easy.

If Foley — who teaches at Orange County National, a massive public facility in Orlando that has one of the world’s largest ranges — works with Woods, he says he’d start with the golfer’s medical charts. “I’d have to understand what’s going on with his left leg, with his knee and his Achilles,” Foley said the other day.

He was home, working with young Canadian amateurs, as he often does. Mahan and O’Hair were playing at the Byron Nelson, outside Dallas. Another student, Justin Rose, was competing in the European tour’s PGA Championship. Foley’s first prominent student, Stephen Ames, was taking the week off.

“Tiger looks like he’s swinging at the ball with just his arms, and maybe that’s a function of injuries,” Foley says. “You might have to find a way to take pressure off.” That’s what Foley did with Ames. He took pressure off the golfer’s aching lower back.

In August 2006 Ames, who lives in Canada, brought an international group of junior golfers together for a competition at the Granite Club outside Toronto called the Stephen Ames Cup. Ames watched Foley work with the kids. “I saw what he was doing for them,” Ames said recently, “and I was impressed.” Even though Ames had won the Players that year by six shots, he was often in pain and he was practically living on his chiropractor’s table. In November 2006, Ames and Foley spent three days together at Orange County National.

“He was making good swings, but he was manipulating his lower spine to do it,” Foley says. “I said, ‘This could be so much easier than you’re making it.’ ” Ames, who won the Tour stop at Disney World in 2007 and again last year, hasn’t had lower-back issues since that first session at Orange County National. Foley moved Ames closer to the ball and taught him a simpler, rounder swing.

Foley had wanted that chance, the chance to work with an elite player, for a long time, and when he got it, he seized the day. One of his credos is from Henry David Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” For Foley, all you have to do is replace woods with practice tee.

Ames says Foley has pointed him toward a bunch of writers and philosophers and turned him into a more serious reader. “Really, except for the age difference, he’s like a role model for me,” says Ames, who is 46.
Ames believes that Foley could be an ideal teacher for Woods because he will show him a swing that will not hurt him. “Tiger’s swing is so violent, it’s no wonder his body is breaking down,” Ames says. In a Foley-shaped swing, Ames adds, “the body moves correctly, to where it doesn’t hurt.”

Of course, the biggest thing in any coach-player relationship lies in the murky waters of personality, in how two people mesh. Ames, compulsively candid, doesn’t pretend to know how Woods and Foley would get along. “In Tiger you have one big ego to work with, and that’s a tough fish to catch,” Ames says. “But the real question is, Could Tiger handle Sean? Actually, you’ve got two pretty big egos there.” Note the mirth in the golfer’s voice.

Like a lot of well-known instructors, Foley is an all-world talker, and an interesting one. He’s a white, eh-using Canuck who went to a historically black university, Tennessee State, in Nashville to play golf. He stayed five years and majored in philosophy. Along the way he became fascinated by Southern culture, African-American culture, hip-hop, the roots of racism and poverty, the life and times of Martin Luther King Jr. and the spiritual, intellectual and athletic development of children. Talking to him, you get the feeling he won’t be baking himself on the practice tee at Orange County National forever.

In the meantime he’s thoroughly devoted to making good players better. Enter Woods. Or maybe not. Foley isn’t convinced Woods needs him or anyone else. He predicts Woods will win 23 or more majors even if he never sees another swing coach. “Eighty-five to 90 percent of Tiger’s swing is completely Tiger Woods,” Foley says. “The teacher’s job is to let Tiger be himself over the ball and learn to answer his own questions. If Tiger learned more from the teacher than the teacher learned from Tiger, then the teacher probably wasn’t asking the right questions. You’re talking about the Jimi Hendrix of golf. You’re talking about Bill Gates. You’re talking about genius.”

Foley can give you entertaining lists of favorite authors (Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky), movies (Forrest Gump, Platoon), musicians (Stevie Wonder, Guru of Gang Starr), poets (Maya Angelou, Lao Tzu) and golf courses (St. Andrews, the Magnolia course at the Walt Disney Golf Resort). But there are gaps in his education. He has, for instance, no favorite video games. Tiger could help him there. Like all real teachers, Foley knows the art of teaching is a two-way street.

SI Golf+ ranked the top candidates to become Woods’s next instructor. Here are the top contenders ranked in order of their odds of getting the job.

Tiger Woods

Odds: 5-1

Philosophy: Just win, baby — while protecting my knee, my neck and my Achilles.

Client: Tiger Woods.

Pros: Woods is a natural, and he knows the evolution of his body and golf swing better than anyone; video analysis is easier than ever.

Cons: A second set of eyes is needed to help detect what he can’t always see, even with a camera.

Sean Foley

Odds: 10-1

Philosophy: Take into account everything from physics to geometry to physiology to psychology to biomechanics to help a player.

Clients: Stephen Ames, Hunter Mahan, Sean O’Hair.

Pros: He’s a Woods contemporary and Nike endorser with an interest in fitness, and he works with two of Tiger’s good buds, Mahan and O’Hair.

Cons: Woods will demand to be Foley’s top dog, which could split his loyalties.

Billy Harmon

Odds: 12-1

Philosophy: Emphasize the fundamentals of the swing.

Client: Jay Haas.

Pros: A friend, he hails from a family of famous instructors, and he’s a recovering alcoholic who could understand Tiger on another level.

Cons: Has never been in the limelight and he’s Butch’s brother, which might be too close for comfort.

Hank Haney

Odds: 25-1

Philosophy: Employ a flat, around-the-body, one-plane swing.

Client: Mark O’Meara.

Pros: He knows Tiger’s swing, he has a good relationship with him and Woods did win 31 tournaments on his watch.

Cons: Tiger said he wanted to own his swing. Post Hank, he may have buyer’s remorse.

Mike Bender

Odds: 30-1

Philosophy: Mix physical abilities with swing fundamentals.

Client: Zach Johnson

Pros: Tour experienced, he has a reputation as a guy who can help without forcing a player to conform to his theories.

Cons: He may not be high-profile enough, and even if he is, a busy academy may keep him home.

Mitchell Spearman

Odds: 30-1

Philosophy:Focus on the big muscles in the body to improve consistency.

Clients: Robert Gamez, Oliver Wilson

Pros: High-energy proponent of the Leadbetter system; he
worked with many top players when Lord Lead was absent.

Cons: He’s a system teacher, and Tiger may balk at pairing with another method guy after Haney.

Brian Mogg

Odds: 30-1

Philosophy: Match solid fundamentals with body sizes and swing types.

Clients: Bart Bryant, D.A. Points, Y.E. Yang.

Pros: Former Tour player and David Leadbetter protégé works with a large stable of pros in Orlando.

Cons: Thriving teaching business would make it difficult for Mogg
to be at Tiger’s beck and call.

Jim Suttie

Odds: 50-1

Philosophy: Let your body and natural tendencies determine your swing.

Clients: Paul Azinger, Loren Roberts.

Pros: Suttie, 63, has a doctorate in education (emphasis on biomechanics) and offers a cerebral, scientific approach.

Cons: Suttie is not in search of notoriety, and his grandfatherly style might not gel with Tiger’s personality.

Butch Harmon

Odds: 120-1

Philosophy: Control the ball with a shorter, tighter swing.

Clients: Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman.

Pros: Worked with Woods during his greatest years — 1994 through 2002 — when he won three straight U.S. Ams and eight majors.

Cons: Butch likes the limelight, and Tiger already fired him once. Plus, Harmon does work with Mickelson.