My ShotMarch 25, 2012

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

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.

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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.

I DON'T UNDERSTAND bad tempers. Getting angry never helps your game. It causes your adrenal glands to dump cortisol and epinephrine into your system. But the worse thing is, why would you deliberately do something that makes you that miserable experience has taught me there's a big difference between style issues in the golf swing and dynamic issues. Getting the club across the line at the top of the swing used to be considered a killer, but Payne Stewart, Fred Couples, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus got the club across the line, and it didn't hurt them. So that's a style issue that doesn't always need addressing. The dynamic issues--movements or positions in the swing that are truly detrimental--are what you go after. They would include clubface position, swing path, angle of attack, horizontal and vertical planes, and solid contact. If Jim Furyk's dad had emphasized style over dynamics, we might never have heard of Jim Furyk.

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SCIENCE DOESN'T explain everything in golf, but it's getting closer. Rhythm and tempo, two parts of the swing that used to be considered impossible to quantify, now can be. But when a golfer plans a shot from the trees, and in his mind's eye sees the ball flying under a limb, then curving to the right before flying over a second limb and landing five feet from the hole with the right amount of backspin, that's where science stops. That's where golf is elevated to an art form, and imagination overpowers anything that science can offer.

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NO SWING METHOD, equipment choice, playing style or practice style is 100 percent positive with no downside. Take Bubba Watson, who is the best practicer on the PGA Tour. On the range, every shot he hits is different, and every shot has a purpose. On the course, Bubba will hit a low, 30-yard fade with a 9-iron to a right-hand pin when a medium-height, no-frills 9-iron would have been more dependable. So even his awesome creativity has assets and drawbacks.

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LESSONS SOMETIMES don't "take." This can be the teacher's fault--or yours. If you don't have a specific goal, teachers are likely to rebuild your swing as they think it should be. They might try to alter your swing plane when all you really want is to learn how to hit a fade with your driver. When you take a lesson, ask questions. Tell the instructor how you learn best and whether he should explain the change, demonstrate it or teach you the feel of it. And make sure to tell him how much you want to spend.

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THERE ARE TWO TYPES of people: You're either a competitor or a cooperator. Me, I'm a helper, a cooperator. I want peace and stability. I have empathy. If I have a guy 4 down after seven holes, my tendency is to feel sorry for him rather than step on his neck.

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I LOOK AT SOME of the things I've said to the media in response to some criticism, and I cringe. I've worked very hard to bury the insecure, defensive, overly sensitive person I was when I was younger, the person who cared too much about what people say and think. I was conditioned by a society in which looks, height, money, popularity and style were valued above all else. It was pounded into me that success is measured by a nice house and a Mercedes. I cared about those things to the point where I almost was asphyxiated by them. Gradually I realized these measures of success aren't valid. Today I operate on a higher plane. But the screwed-up kid I once was, the sensitive kid who cares too much about what people think, still rears his head when a criticism is leveled at me. I don't care, but he does, and just when I think I've buried him, there he is again.

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A PLAYER EMAILED ME once and wrote that he was "waiting for momentum to go my way." What I thought--but didn't have the nerve to say--was that momentum is not something you wait to have happen. Momentum is something you create. Another thing I don't like to hear after a round is, "Things didn't go my way." There's a lack of accountability in that. It's human nature to feel victimized on occasion. But you can't play this game if you feel like unseen forces are conspiring against you.

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SOMETIMES I'LL SAY to Justin Rose, "Rosey, does your swing feel as good as it looks?" I'll point out the positives, as encouragement and as a way of affirming that he's working on the right things. The instructor has to point out flaws, no doubt about it. But it's important to point out the good things. Even a hacker does at least a few things right. Otherwise, he wouldn't make contact.

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YOU ASK WHY there are not more minorities on the PGA Tour, when Tiger has been a presence in golf for 15 years. The reasons are more socioeconomic than they are racial. Once minorities attain equal economic footing with whites, we'll see more diversity on the PGA Tour. But first things first. I'm much more concerned about literacy rates among minorities than I am with how many are playing pro golf.

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RICKIE FOWLER was admonished for wearing his hat backward, first at Augusta National then at Charlotte. Why would you do that? The game is losing participants. It desperately needs an infusion of new players, and they're going to come from the extreme-sports generation. When these young people show up wanting to play, and you give them grief about how they dress, they're going to say no thanks and head right back to supercross. The people who disapprove of Rickie wearing his hat backward should look at the people in his gallery who dress like he does and ask, "Do you want them to go away, too?" It's kind of distressing that Lucas Glover wearing a beard is so different that it becomes a story. Golf is not in a position to call the shots.

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MY DAD always told me to live every day as though I knew I was going to die at the end of the day tomorrow. Not die painfully, but just cease to exist. What would I do in the time I had left? Would I worry about some writer throwing me under the bus? Would I worry about the accountant who burned me for $1,000? No. I'd spend that day around my parents, wife and little boy. I'd maybe have some beers. I'd dwell on the things that have given me happiness.