August 24, 2014

'It's Harder Than It Looks'

You can't assess Sean Foley's tenure coaching Tiger Woods without recognizing a simple truth: It's a near-impossible job

Foley once said of Woods, "As good as he is, as much work as he put in, the stuff couldn't have been right, or it would have worked better."

Foley once said of Woods, "As good as he is, as much work as he put in, the stuff couldn't have been right, or it would have worked better."

It's often assumed that the more gifted the athlete(s), the easier the coach's job. Dynastic leaders from Bear Bryant and John Wooden to Bill Walsh and Phil Jackson were all accused of doing little more than "rolling the ball out," "driving the van," "filling up the Rolls Royce," etc.

Of course, any biography or autobiography of those giants and others like them proves things aren't that way. And they really aren't in the complex and constantly changing sport of tournament golf, especially for anyone who coaches Tiger Woods.

Consider that other than childhood instructors Rudy Duran and John Anselmo, none of Woods' three succeeding coaches had a more favorable success-to-turmoil ratio than Butch Harmon. The pair began their partnership when Woods was an attentive teenager who was after growth more than results, shared in the kind of professional debut that kept critics patient through a subsequent swing change, and reveled in a 2000 season that cemented their legacy. But two years later they met a messy end, and early in 2004 Harmon approached Woods' new teacher, Hank Haney, to wish him well.

"Hank, good luck," Harmon said, according to Haney's account in "The Big Miss." "It's a tough team to be on. And it's harder than it looks."

Haney found out it was, and so did Sean Foley. Certainly the then 36-year-old Canadian instructor knew when he connected with Woods in 2010 that Tiger was going to be a more complicated subject than he was under Harmon and even Haney. Foley nevertheless could hardly wait to fully connect with the player he believed to be the most talented golfer the world had ever seen.

Foley was confident enough to assure Woods that unlike his previous two swing changes with Harmon and Haney, the full transition to what they would be embarking on would take much less than 18 months.

"First of all, it's easier to change to the right track than the wrong track," said Foley shortly after he and Woods began working together. "Secondly, Tiger's focus and dedication is truly amazing. He relentlessly does the reps, and he's building new motor patterns very quickly."

Foley also added, with a brash shot at Haney's work with Woods that, given what would transpire, he probably wishes he could have back: "As good as he is, as much work as he put in, the stuff couldn't have been right, or it would have worked better."

Among the technical changes Foley installed were a slightly stronger grip, more bend from the waist at address that created a more vertical shoulder plane, and more shaft lean toward the target at impact. Foley based the changes on his knowledge of efficient biomechanics, and Woods consistently returned favorable reviews, enthusing about how impact felt more solid and produced increased distance.

But it soon became apparent that the results just weren't there. Concepts and changes that worked on the practice range were inconsistent in competition. Woods' distance control with the irons was off, and he began missing his driver both ways rather than predominantly to the right. In major championships, he began a disturbing pattern of getting into contention after two days but then, in a stark reversal of his earlier career, playing indifferently at crunch time.

Things got harder than they looked, with only the 2013 season bearing anything close to the fruit that Foley had anticipated. All kinds of variables were considered, but in retrospect, the reason was simple. The golfer (and person) Sean Foley got to work with wasn't the same Tiger Woods.

A big part of the difference came down to injuries and the attendant long breaks from competition they entailed. As a single father of two young children, Woods' time management and focus also became more complicated. But the X factor, the one that Woods never discusses publicly, was the tabloid-generated shaming he endured (which included a record 20 straight days on the cover of the New York Post) in the long aftermath of his 2009 scandal for infidelities.

It's a delicate subject, one very few peers or even commentators care to touch. But it's as real as any swing change or injury, and probably more consequential. As Gary Player said about Woods last year in Golf Digest, "It's an important feeling for a golfer to believe people admire you. He [Woods] had the opposite, and that's very hard to deal with."

As science based as his teaching is, Foley soon enough learned that his biggest challenge would be fixing not the physical, but the mental. Which was actually a challenge and opportunity he welcomed. Naturally open and gregarious, a self-described searcher who enjoys sharing his own life lessons, Foley had openly looked forward to getting to know Woods well as a person and helping him through what he knew was a difficult period. He saw that dynamic as part and parcel of a successful coach/student partnership.

"I want to be a teacher who teaches his guys more about life and themselves than just about the game," Foley said. "By helping them become better people, they're going to become better at their sport by having less conflict."

But based on reliable observers, what Foley had hoped for didn't happen. Though their working relationship never showed any public strain, it remained more clinical than close. It follows that as a result, Woods never dealt with the root of his problems, which are not about technique or injuries, but rather about his wounded psyche and how it has changed his once supreme gift for competition.

For these reasons, Foley's tenure with Woods will always carry an asterisk. Despite four years of undeniably diligent work with Woods, he didn't really have a fair chance. It's not unreasonable to speculate that because he didn't/couldn't interact with Woods in the same more personal way he does with students Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose, Foley didn't have the opportunity to make the same kind of strides.

Life often comes down to timing, and with Woods, Foley's timing was bad. Now Woods is again in a position to take his time and reassess. But as time runs out, the question is whether whoever he works with in the future will ever have good timing again.