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My Shot

Sean Foley

The teacher of the stars (and regular players) on temper tantrums, the science of golf, and how to put out a five-alarm fire before it happens

September 2011

I THINK I WAS BORN to teach golf. I was a "why" person even as a kid. I questioned everything, and with the golf swing there's an awful lot of "why." When my dad took me to the Canadian Open at Glen Abbey when I was 14, he went onto the course to watch the players, and I went to the range to watch teachers work with players. I sat on a hillside watching David Leadbetter work with Nick Faldo for as long as they were there. The instruction articles in the golf magazines fascinated me. I'd take a copy to the range, open it and lay rocks on the corners of the pages, and try to copy what Davis Love Jr., John Elliott or Jack Lumpkin were telling me. I've always had a need to figure out what made a good swing work. And once I began finding the answers, I couldn't wait to pass what I learned to other players.

...

THE IDEA that any teacher is so great, his method so perfect, that a player is suddenly going to never miss a shot, is crazy. I don't even think a terrific swing is the main goal. The great coaches--Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Phil Jackson--are not remembered for how they drew up Xs and Os. Their players never talk about those things. What they remember are the good values they instilled, the strong work ethic and the productive approaches to life. My role to my guys, first and foremost, is to be part of their support system, to act out the things I believe in, and be there for them. That's every bit as important as what I do for their golf swings.

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IT'S TUESDAY the week of the Players Championship. I'm on the range with Tiger when I get a text from my wife, Kate, who is five months pregnant with our second child. The text says, "Call me when you have a chance." The fact she didn't say "please" alarmed me, because she's so polite. I phone her, and she tells me the OB-GYN has just told her that tests have shown our baby might have a serious health condition. I hang up and, being in a daze, carry on with Tiger. But he senses something's wrong; I tell him what's going on. He hits a few more balls and then says, "Why are you still here? It's only my swing plane. Go home." Kate later found out that the baby is going to be fine. But the moral of the story is, Tiger Woods gets it. At the end of the day, he knows what's important in life.

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I BEGAN working with Hunter Mahan early in 2008. A short time later, Hunter met a girl, Kandi Harris. Serious relationships will affect a person's performance one way or the other, and when I met Kandi, it was clear she cared about Hunter as a person. [The two were married earlier this year.] I immediately knew that Hunter would no longer wake up with his main concern being how he was going to shoot 65. His world was suddenly bigger and better. He was happy. He had more clarity and less conflict. When a person has that much peace of mind, it's going to show in everything they do. I wasn't surprised that 2010 was his best year ever, and I'm smart enough to know that the positive work we did with his golf swing was only a small part of that.

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MOST LEARNING AGENCIES will tell you that genius at golf can only be developed by playing the course, not beating balls on the range. Here's what I'd recommend for a junior program, based on 12 years of experience. On Mondays, have them play the front tees, and require that they hit driver on every hole, so they get used to making a lot of birdies. On Tuesdays, make them play the back tees--even if it's 7,300 yards--and demand that they hit only irons. That's good for their short games, and they learn to hit 265-yard 3-irons that carry 180 and roll the rest of the way. On Wednesdays, tell them they can play with only four clubs. They'll love showing you how they can hit a 5-iron 125 yards. The shotmaking they learn is unbelievable, and only on the course will they learn that.

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WHY DO GOLFERS hit it great on the range but then hit it lousy on the course? The answer usually is a change in what I call "range speed." On the range, where there's no stress, you establish a certain tempo, speed and effort. On the course, when you're performing, those elements tend to change, almost always to something faster with more effort. No one is immune to it; it's something Tiger and I have worked on. Early in the round especially, think mainly of swinging smoothly with good tempo.

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ALL GOLFERS, even poor ones, sometimes get that eerie can't-miss sensation, the feeling where you know a putt is going to drop even as you stand over the ball at address. There's also the flip side, which is standing over a three-footer and knowing you've got no chance of making the putt. The last frontier in golf is understanding where that sensation comes from, what drives it, and figuring out how to teach it. Tiger has had the ability to create the can't-miss sensation 80 percent of his career. I remember a TV announcer once asking Tiger about a crucial putt he'd holed and Tiger answering, "There was no way it wasn't going in." The way Tiger said it was scary. The putt dropping was a foregone conclusion to him. We're still a ways away from understanding the mind enough to be able to summon that sensation on command. But when we do, anything is possible.

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ONE DIFFERENCE between pros and amateurs is how they deal with hazards and out-of-bounds. When the amateur plays a hole with water on the right, his attention is drawn there, and he swings with the sole intention of avoiding trouble. What happens, of course, is that he either hits the ball in the water anyway or hits it so far away from it that he gets in trouble on the other side. I call it the five-alarm mentality. The pro has fear, but he's developed methods for controlling it. He gives the water on the right the respect it deserves, but mentally it doesn't set off a five-alarm fire. He focuses his attention on a spot on the left side of the fairway, then makes a positive swing with only the intention of hitting that spot.

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GOLF IS PLAYED from the ground up. Every great player, from Bobby Jones to Hogan to Nicklaus to Woods, has had tremendous footwork. The next time you step out to your back yard barefoot to make some practice swings, pay attention to the sensations coming from your feet. All kinds of things are going on during the swing--toes curling and digging, one or both arches showing as you turn and shift your weight back and through, heel lifting on the follow-through. Footwork is an indicator of good balance, a source of power and accuracy. Very often, I can tell where a shot went by watching the feet and nothing else.

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THERE ALWAYS was the impression that Sam Snead's swing was totally God-given, that he was born with that gorgeous natural motion. But Sam spent countless hours hitting balls in his bare feet as a youth. His incredible balance and stability were no accident; he had a conscious understanding of them and deliberately applied them. Like Michelangelo, who spent thousands of hours as a youth studying sculpting and painting under a couple of masters before going out on his own, Snead's overnight success was a long time in the making.

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THE BIGGEST MISTAKE a teacher can make with a tour pro is to change the grip. I learned the hard way with Parker McLachlin, who came to me not long after he'd won in 2008. I thought his left hand was too strong, so I suggested he make it more neutral. Parker went along, and it radically changed the way he released the club. He had a terrible time integrating his new release to the way he related to his target. Parker fell into a deep slump and lost his card. At that point I suggested he go back to his old grip. Only then did it occur to me that we could have obtained the result I'd wanted by changing other aspects of his swing.

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