Who Is Sean Foley?

A 35-year-old Canadian now living in Orlando, one of the best young teachers in the game -- and, if the signs are to be believed, Tiger Woods' new swing coach

August 23, 2010

Tiger Woods by nature doesn't like change. Of course, he's dealing with as many changes at once as any athlete has ever had to endure, and the only way back to normalcy is more change. It is in this spirit that Woods is considering hiring Sean Foley as his new swing coach.

By giving Foley, 35, an audition last week at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Woods signaled that he's ready to end the experiment of working on his swing alone, undertaken when he split with Hank Haney in May and initially intended to last through the year. It meant that Woods will be employing new concepts that are radically opposed to Haney's, exposing Woods' consciousness to the disturbing thought that all of his hard work and dedication since 2004 was at least somewhat misdirected. By working with Foley, Woods would become part of a stable of players and rivals, including Sean O'Hair, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose and Stephen Ames. In bringing Foley to his team, Woods would be introducing an extrovert into an inner circle whose mantra is omerta.

All these changes, of course, would be calculated toward getting back on track to an unchanging goal: breaking Jack Nicklaus' career record of 18 major championships.

Woods got the ball rolling when he called Foley toward the end of the worst tournament week of his career at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where he finished 18 over par at Firestone with a major at perhaps the most potentially penal golf course extant awaiting him. Woods came to Whistling Straits early for some hard preparation and on Tuesday in a practice round with Mahan and O'Hair, Foley videotaped Woods swing. They worked on the practice tee three more times before the week was out, the final time before Woods' third round on Saturday.

Woods' play at Whistling Straits was spotty but encouraging. In finishing T-28 at 286, he drove so poorly (hitting only 37.5 percent of the fairways) that he was often in deep-fescue scramble mode, and nowhere more than on the par 5s, which he played in a cumulative (and mind-boggling) one over par. He was pretty good with the irons, and putted brilliantly or badly. As he has in all four majors, he suffered from rally-killing mistakes, like reaching five under for the championship Sunday to get his name at the bottom of the leader board, only to three-putt the ninth and double-bogey the easy 10th.

But Woods was positive about the way he hit the ball, especially on the practice range, emphasizing that it harkened back to earlier days. As for Foley, Woods was non-committal but not coy after his final round.

"I like some of the things he had to say about my golf swing and where I needed to go," said Woods. "I like the direction because I was able to hit some of the shots I used to be able to hit feel-wise. When you get that kind of contact again, it's good. As far as working down the road, I'm sure I'm going to see him a little bit more. I still want to pick his brain. I don't really have all of his whole concept yet. But I would like to get to know him more before I fully get into it."

Foley also showed restraint. "We are literally in the sharing ideas stage. There's nothing official," the instructor said from the Milwaukee airport Sunday morning as he awaited a flight home to Orlando. "I really enjoyed talking to Tiger about the concepts of my teaching and finding out what he's looking for. I think he can tell that I like to challenge my players, and that I'm not going to be a 'yes' man. I'm always going to be who I am. That's it."

Indeed, candor is Foley's métier. Consider this assessment: "I want to get Tiger back to a place physically that he has been before, but with a new understanding. If he had understood what was so good about what he did before, he wouldn't have changed it. At the same time, I want to give him a better awareness of what he is doing now. The reason he has been hitting it where he has is that he didn't understand. As good as he is, as much work as he put in, the stuff he was working on couldn't have been right, or it would have worked better."

Foley's natural jauntiness, which might be jarring in Woods hermetically sealed world, could prove to be a hurdle. There is also the question of his other longtime players losing time with Foley because of Woods. But O'Hair supports the partnership, and Mahan is for it as well, saying, "I think it will work fine. I think hanging around Tiger would be a good thing. I think it will only benefit all of us, really, if that happens."

As for Woods, he is already familiar with Foley's operation from playing regular practice rounds with O'Hair. According to a source familiar with the budding relationship, "Tiger is really taken with Foley's intelligence."

No doubt it's considerable. Born near Toronto to a Scottish father and Guyanese mother, much of Foley's boyhood was spent living with his family in cultural centers such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and Toronto. He attended Tennessee State, a historically black school in Nashville, where he played on the golf team, majored in political science and philosophy, and graduated with a B.A. in 1998. He said learning to deal with being a minority on a campus that was predominantly black was a challenge that became one of the most important experiences of his life.

"At first I was trying to impress everyone I met, and I wasn't being accepted," he said. "I learned I had to be secure in myself before others would accept me. It led to a lot of really great friendships. I carry that lesson today."

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