September 28, 2010

A Teacher Speaks Truth To Power

Sean Foley has got Tiger's ear, and Woods is listening

Golf Digest picking Sean Foley

for our cover as one of the Best Young Teachers

is significant. But it doesn't bother us to say that it was more significant for Foley to have been picked by Tiger Woods

.

We don't know exactly why Woods made Foley his first choice to succeed Hank Haney. Indeed, no formal arrangement between the two had been announced by early September. But it's safe to say that the ultra-discerning Woods observed some special qualities in the 36-year-old Canadian. And though Rudy Duran, John Anselmo, Butch Harmon and Haney all made history working with Woods, Foley arrives at the most interesting time of all.

Since their first session at the PGA Championship

, Woods has demonstrated faith in Foley's concept of the golf swing. That wasn't a given. Though the impressive actions of Sean O'Hair, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose and Stephen Ames might recommend Foley, his ideas are radically different from the ones Woods worked on for more than six years with Haney.

But Woods has committed himself to breaking a lifelong habit of moving laterally to his right in his backswing. He's keeping his arms tighter to his torso, turning his shoulders on a steeper plane, and allowing his body to move more aggressively toward the target so that he's noticeably "covering" the ball more at impact. Woods took on several drills -- having a shaft held next to the right side of his head, swinging while keeping a golf glove from dropping from his right armpit, hitting balls barefoot to improve footwork, and "walking through" shots by stepping forward with his right foot.

diaz

Still, Woods delayed formalizing his arrangement with Foley, hesitant to embark on the third major swing change of his career. But Foley has assured Woods the process will be shorter than the approximately 18 months each previous alteration required, and simpler. "First of all, it's easier to change to the right track than the wrong track," Foley says with customary brio. "Secondly, Tiger's focus and dedication are truly amazing. He relentlessly does the reps, and he's building new motor patterns very quickly."

Yet for all of Woods' obsession with finding the correct swing technique, Foley's biggest attraction lies in intangibles. Young though he may be, Foley is in many ways an old soul, with an orientation that is closer to Harvey Penick than The Golfing Machine.

"I want to be a teacher who teaches his guys more about life and themselves than just about the game," Foley says, citing models like John Wooden, Bill Walsh, Phil Jackson and Scotty Bowman. "By helping them become better people, they're going to become better at their sport by having less conflict."

In his current state, it's understandable for Woods to want some of that. Indeed, Woods has taken some difficult steps toward Foley. Abandoning the Haney principles had to have been painful, a concession that his mission to end his persistent flaw of "getting stuck" on the downswing had failed. It's likely Woods' progress during the four months he went without an instructor was probably inhibited by an attempt to employ a swing method he dubbed a "Hank Hybrid." It took Woods' phone call to Foley from Akron on the Saturday night of his worst tournament as a professional to finally make a clean break.

Ever since, Woods has been complimentary of Foley, even as he played unevenly. He spoke of achieving better contact with his irons and gaining distance with his driver, comparing the sensations of compressing the ball at impact to his "old self." He deferred to Foley's desire to stop the lateral head movement that had been with him since he was a junior, conceding that perhaps "technique has changed." He explained bad patches of play as "reverting to my old ways." And Woods used the collective "we," rather than "I," when asked about his progress.

Most telling, when Foley was openly critical of Woods' old swing, he received no censure from the inner circle. Among Foley's comments: "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." And this: "He continued to be stuck because he wasn't doing the right thing to become unstuck." In the end, the statements and similar ones have been liberating, freeing Woods from years of spin that his ball-striking was improving and that he was a better driver than ever.

Foley might need to be more discrete in the future, but candor is just one of the attributes that can benefit Woods. Their similar age would give Woods, 34, surrounded by older people throughout his professional life, a close associate and friend in his peer group. Like Woods, Foley is a father (he and his wife, Kate, have a 2½-year old son, Quinn), is into fitness and sports, and can more than hold his own in the needling and bawdy humor that is the lingua franca of the practice tee. And though both men love to talk golf technique and history, Foley's intelligence and knowledge of multiple subjects intrigues Woods, who enjoyed being around "brainiacs" in his two years at Stanford.

Woods also respects that Foley is no sycophant. Foley doesn't deny that he's excited to work with Woods but maintains that he would remain very content with his Orlando-based career without him. Foley says he has had no problem telling Woods he's wrong about some swing issues, and that he has challenged him just as he does all his students. "I won't ever be a yes man," he says. And Foley suggested another bond by bringing up his experience playing golf for Tennessee State, a historically black college. "I've always appreciated what Tiger's doing in a historically Caucasian sport," Foley says, "and I think because of my experiences I have empathy for him."

Taking a stand has never been a problem for Foley. Gio Valiante, a sport psychologist who works with Rose, is an academic who enjoys exchanging ideas with Foley. Valiante recently sent him a quote from Rousseau: "Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains." To Valiante's amazement, Foley replied that he'd hung the quote on his bedroom door at age 12.

Foley is all about breaking chains. At Tennessee State, Foley says he went through a life-changing experience. "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. That's the most important lesson I ever learned."

After receiving a B.A. in political science and philosophy, Foley set out to be a teaching pro and began reading voraciously in the fields of biomechanics, physics, geometry and neuroscience. Foley believes the information has given him such a sure ability to diagnose, explain and correct what each of his students needs that his emphasis going forward is beyond mechanics.

"There really isn't a whole lot more to learn about the swing," Foley says. "Teaching is really more a function of how people best learn. If you have a feel player who has kind of an auditory sense to him, maybe you get him hitting balls wearing a blindfold and barefoot, listening to Chopin. Whatever instills the lesson best."

Foley remains an avid reader, favoring biographies and classic philosophers like William James. Along with loving the sight and sound of a correctly struck golf shot, he is drawn to teaching the game as a means of self-improvement. "The beautiful thing is that teaching is my therapy," Foley says. "You give people the advice you also need to hear. I have the opportunity to get people to get the most out of themselves, and to live a life of principle and character. You really try to understand the life of the person you're teaching. But no one is going to listen to me if I don't do it myself."

To all appearances, at least one person has been all ears.