Tiger Woods owes his renaissance to Sean Foley who has become the leading coach in professional golf, writes Lawrence Donegan
In a world as small as top-class professional golf, unanimity is rare but there was plenty of agreement around at the halfway stage of last year's PGA Championship after Tiger Woods played dreadfully to miss the cut at the Atlanta Athletic Club. A fleet of double-decker buses would not have been enough to accommodate the "experts" leaving the course that day who would have been happy to write the obituary of an extraordinary career.
Tiger Woods' best days were behind him and Sean Foley, a 37-year-old Canadian, who had spent exactly a year "overhauling" the great man's swing to apparently deleterious effect, was culpable. "No disrespect to Sean," the outspoken American television analyst Brandel Chamblee said that night.
"But I think he [Woods] is getting the wrong advice. I think he is working on the wrong stuff . . . He needs a new coach."
Fast-forward eight months and Woods is favourite for this week's Masters after his dominating victory at the Bay Hill Invitational. Meanwhile, Foley has perhaps established himself as the pre-eminent coach in the world. In the past seven weeks, three of his pupils have won big events: Woods at Bay Hill, Hunter Mahan at the Accenture World Match Play and Justin Rose at the Cadillac Championship in Miami. No disrespect to Chamblee and his ilk, but they were all a bit premature in their judgement.
Does Foley have anything to say to his routed critics? "Duke Ellington said he didn't listen to critics
because critics adapted their criticisms to their own tastes, their own reality. He said only the artist knows if he's truly hitting his mark. It's so true," he says.
This is exactly the kind of erudite word play and casual self-elevation that has earned Foley the suspicion of the sport's establishment. That and his relative youth and stunning success. Teaching the swing is meant to be an ancient art, where wisdom is accrued over decades and applied with the minimum of fuss. It was once an old man's profession and a modest man's too. Foley is neither of these things. Seven years ago, he was teaching kids at a course in Canada before moving to Orlando, Florida.
"Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a golf coach. I talked to my wife and said: 'We need to move to the States. We need to move to Orlando. If I want to do this, Florida is where it's at'," he recalls. "A couple of months later I'm basically soliciting for a work at a local driving range, walking up and down offering people lessons. That was when my wife said: 'This is just a bad idea. We were struggling to pay the rent and mortgage'. I told her: 'Look, everything will be fine'. She said: 'How can you say that?' I said: 'Because I'm Sean and it always works out for me'."
Foley's confidence did not have much basis in reality but it was built on the solid foundations of an outsider's life. His father, a Glaswegian immigrant, worked for DuPont and the family went wherever his job took him.
He was a golf fanatic as a kid but while his friends headed straight to the course, he went straight to the driving range. ("I worshipped my coaches, would watch and listen to them teaching all day if I could.") He was a good enough player to earn a scholarship at Tennessee State University, where he was the only white player on the team.
"From the time I was five to 15, I moved to nine different places, so every year was like the first day of school, so that's scrutiny. Then I went to an all-black university in Nashville and lived on campus for five years. There is no greater scrutiny than that," he says.
"Tennessee State was great for me because I could not have learned more at Harvard with how to deal with life and learn to be yourself and not need other people to accept you, not feel like you need to be appreciated. I learned to have to find your strength and confidence within yourself and not need it from the outside."
His big break as a coach came in 2006 when the Canadian-based PGA Tour pro Stephen Ames called him and asked if he would take a look at his swing.
"I'm pretending to be cool on the phone, but I'm really freaking out inside. He came down three days later and we spent three days together and ironed some stuff out," he says.
The next step was travelling on the PGA Tour with Ames. "My first event was at Phoenix. I remember walking on the range and Stephen was hitting between Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. I had to walk to the nearest portable toilet to give myself a little pep talk. I looked into the mirror and said: 'Look, you know what you're doing. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. If not, then it's not a big deal'."
Word travels fast on the driving range and the word was that Foley's work with Ames was impressive. It was certainly good enough to attract the attention of the then up-and-coming American Sean O'Hair, who was soon followed into the Foley stable by Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose.
O'Hair has since departed, but Mahan and Rose remain and have thrived with Foley's help, winning regularly on the PGA Tour and at the bigger events. In five years the Canadian outsider had gone from nobody to somebody in professional golf. His world had expanded and it was about to expand a lot more.
"Tiger Woods called me halfway through the Bridgestone tournament [in August 2010]. I was like: 'Wow'. It was kind of a dream come true. I remember doing an interview way back in Canada saying that I was going to coach five players in the top 50 and one of them was going to be Tiger Woods. But it was a dream. Why not have a dream?
"Before I coached Tiger I was a huge fan, ever since junior golf. I was always pulling for him because of what he brought to change the optics of the game -- as a minority, and being the greatest ever. Plus, he was always really kind to me when I was on tour. I kind of stuck out when I first came on tour, I looked so young and a lot of people kept their distance. He didn't and I appreciated that.
"I'd probably rehearsed in my mind what I was going to tell him for 10 years. It was like a very vivid thing. We played at the PGA Championship with Sean and Hunter and I met him on the range that afternoon and we just kind of started."
They have been working together for 20 months, during much of which Woods has either been injured or struggling to come to grips with Foley's ideas.
"It's a process," the player said time and again during the period, a mantra for which he was mocked.
In retrospect, it appears he was telling the truth all along. After another break to recover from surgery, Woods started playing again at the tail end of 2011 and immediately performed better than he had for some time. The improvement continued into this year and while a tournament victory was elusive, the quality of Woods' ball-striking was drawing comparisons with his peak years. "Phenomenal," said one former Major champion after watching the American hit balls on the range at Doral recently. "Probably the best I have ever seen him hit it."
As with all those who entered the charmed circle, Foley has taken the oath of omerta on most of his dealings with his employer. "He's a reactively funny guy," he responds when asked to reveal something that not many may know about the player.
How about telling us something that he did not know about Woods until he started working with him? "When Tiger is practising I just try to stay out of the way and when he has a question I'll answer it," he begins. "The one thing I've seen with Tiger that's impressed me more than anyone is his ability to concentrate. He would like to talk, but it gets in the way of his clarity. It's really interesting when he gets the blinders on and he's in true learning mode."
How good can Tiger be with his new swing? "It will be special."
As insights go this is hardly earth-shattering but it at least reveals the teaching instinct runs both ways in the Foley-Woods dynamic. The talkative, outgoing teacher has clearly learned from the pupil and the lesson for this week at Augusta, like every other week, is that the only talk that matters will come from Tiger Woods' clubs.
Sunday Indo Sport