When he was 13 and living in Toronto, Sean Foley and his younger brother Kevin accompanied their parents across the border to Buffalo on a shopping trip. At the end of the day, Sean showed off one of his purchases, a polo shirt. "I'm like, 'Sean, that's the worst shirt I've ever seen,'" Kevin remembers. "'That's pink.'" And he goes, "'Kevin, you don't know style. It's salmon.'"
With designer glasses for goggles and haute couture as a wetsuit, Foley has been swimming upstream ever since. Never mind teaching Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose and a handful of others, Foley is under golf's version of the atomic force microscope because he's the guy who's supposed to get Tiger Woods from where he was to where he wants to go. Lofty ball-striking statistics -- Woods, Mahan and Rose all have them -- are well and good, but it is all about the majors and there has been little progress to report there.
"You have to have a thick skin to sit in that chair," says Butch Harmon. "Of the three of us, myself, Hank [Haney] and Sean, I had the easiest job. I had Tiger when he was younger. Sean has probably had the toughest job. He's got an older Tiger Woods who's had four knee surgeries, who's had a lot of off-course problems. I never had to deal with any of that."
Commingling his swing advice with philosophical aphorisms that are wisdom to some and bromide to others, even at 37, just a year older than his most famous pupil, Foley is sure the journey he has traveled has prepped him for the rest of the trip. The day before play began in last year's Players Championship, roughly nine months after they were declared an item at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Foley was on the back of the range at TPC Sawgrass with Woods, who was trying to return a little more than a month after twisting his damaged left knee playing a shot from under the Eisenhower Tree in the Masters. The cell phone in Foley's camera bag was blowing up. It was his wife, Kate, pregnant with their second child. There was a problem.
"She was really upset, almost hyperventilating," Foley says. An ultrasound revealed the baby had a diaphragmatic hernia. The risk of the child dying was significant, on either side of 50-50, and if the baby survived, one of the potential complications was cerebral palsy. "Tiger said, 'What are you doing here, you need to get home.' That was the longest four-hour drive of my life," says Foley. He was back the next morning to watch Woods play nine holes, shoot 42 and WD. As 24-hour stretches go, this wasn't a great one.
Foley has three tattoos on his upper left arm: a K, a Q and another K. The first K is for Kate. The Q, for his oldest son Quinn, surrounds a Chinese character that means perspective. He got that when he was an instructor at Glen Abbey GC after doing a golf clinic with pediatric cancer patients all of whom were terminal. The other K, for Kieran, surrounds a character that means courage.
"When we found it out, I was so scared, ridiculously scared," he says. "I just realized how, I if could get through that, anything that could happen to me in my professional life would be like a shaving wound."
Three days after Kieran was born, he had surgery to repair the hole in his diaphragm. "The surgeon walked up and he had a look like he just birdied the last six holes. He's pretty proud," says Foley. "It was a beautiful thing." Kieran was, and is, fine.
Mahan will tell you he's not just happy Foley is his instructor, he's grateful he's in his life. Rose likes to say Foley is technical without being mechanical. Woods says there are two reasons he turned to Foley. "One, knowledge and, two, every one of his guys were good ball-strikers," he says. "I have learned so much about the golf swing as far as path and how it travels and the body movements that I did not know. Also, one of the reasons why I hurt my knee all those years ago, what I was doing and how we can play around that." Foley says Woods' backswing is more in line now and, "he's less stuck than he's ever been." To their critics, though, Woods seems as stuck as ever -- on 14, as in majors.
__Ink think: For Foley, tattoos are constant
reminders of family (wife Kate, and sons
Quinn and Kieran) as well as core values,
such as perspective and courage.__
Foley is the Canadian-born son of a Scottish émigré from a poor section of Glasgow and a mother from a poor part of the world, Guyana, a country squeezed between Venezuela and Suriname. Ask Kevin whether his brother is more like his South American mother, Donna, or his Scottish father, Gerry, and he says, "I think before 2010, he was a lot more like my mother. She's electric. She speaks from the heart. I think when Sean got Tiger, his world changed. My dad is very well thought out, nothing is spur of the moment. That's Sean ever since he stepped in the gauntlet."
His father worked for DuPont, first in R&D and later sales, and the family was on the move. They lived in Toronto, Wilmington, Del., San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Vancouver and Toronto again. The transitions weren't always smooth. "I was half-leader, half-blender," says Sean. His brother says, "Seanie will tell you he was always trying to impress."
Both brothers attended university in the U.S. Tennessee State, a predominately black school in Nashville, was the only college to offer Sean a full golf scholarship, and he took it. As a player, Foley had a problem taking his game from the practice tee to the course though, in reality, the practice tee was where he wanted to be all along. "Sean always told us when we were sitting around that this is what he was going to do," says Kevin Gunter, a teammate and roommate at TSU. Gunter says Foley kept a black garbage bag in his room filled with clippings of instruction articles. "They would date back 15 years," says Gunter. "His goal was to be one of the top golf instructors in the world."
Being a self-described short kid (5-foot-7) with cystic acne, Canadian and on a golf scholarship at a black university wasn't an ideal prescription for social integration. "You don't feel accepted," he says. "You feel like you have to prove yourself. Tennessee State, I could not have learned more at Harvard about those necessary things in life. You have to be who you are, be exactly that way, be a good person, be compassionate, be empathetic and just keep doing that. People were insanely cruel."
Foley fought depression. He figured out how to open the lock to the roof of his dormitory, Boyd Hall, and would sit there by himself, "like, eight stories up, and kind of philosophically get my head around it," he says. He came out of Tennessee State with a large debt ($56,800 Canadian) accumulated from the cost of summer school classes (to stay eligible), the expense of too much fun (including a taste for recreational marijuana expressed, in part, by the Rastafarian symbol tattooed on his upper right arm), and an internship at the John Jacobs Schools.
At TSU, Foley worked part time for the Jacobs school at Opryland Hotel and Resort, where his college team practiced. His other moneymaking schemes included cleaning construction sites and selling frozen meat door-to-door. "We used to hit the army bases on payday," Foley recalls. "Your neighborhood butcher. They paid me cash."
After graduation he worked for Jacobs schools in Nashville and Fort Lauderdale. To supplement the meager wages of an apprentice instructor, he waited tables at Outback Steakhouse and got fired, not once, but twice. After his student visa expired, Foley returned to Toronto and drove a forklift the first winter. When the weather turned, he got a job teaching at the junior academy at Glen Abbey with the help of well-known Canadian instructor Ben Kern.
He taught all day, sometimes partied too much at night, and worked at The Keg, roughly a kilometer from the course. Sean Casey, director of golf at Glen Abbey, joined the staff a year after Foley. "Sean came across as very confident and secure but he wasn't necessarily feeling that way," Casey says. "Golf was that thing for him where he could be confident in himself. He did more legwork, dug deeper, learned more, read more, talked to more people than anybody."
Foley traded instruction time with a post-graduate student who had access to the biomechanics lab at McMaster University where he could test his theories. He would teach 12 or 14 hours a day, maybe go to the lab at night or to the restaurant to make enough to pay his bills.
"I was driven to hit the golf ball better, and I was driven to party," says Foley. "If I never really went through that phase, I wouldn't have opened all these books up about the mind and spirit. If I hadn't gotten to that point where I was that down and realized I didn't want to live like that, I don't think I would have [developed] an insatiable thirst to learn more about myself and try to figure out who I wanted to be."
Foley met Kate when he gave her golf lessons at Glen Abbey. "Kate's the only thing in my life I've never done wrong," he says. "I've taught golf and given bad information to some people that didn't suit them and they regressed. Drugs. Alcohol. Fighting. You name it, I've done all of it. But Kate's the only thing I've done right the whole time." Their second date was Sept. 11, 2001. They married three years later.
It was while he was teaching juniors at Glen Abbey in 2006 that Foley met Stephen Ames. "His initial three days of working together changed what I'd been trying to change for years," says Ames, who went on to win the Players. "My reason for going to him was that my body broke down and I couldn't swing."
Although it was Ames who brought Foley into the PGA Tour fold, it was no surprise to the people who knew him that he ended up there. "When we were sitting over a pint, let's say 10 years ago," says Casey, "he flat out said, 'I'm going to coach Tiger Woods one day.' He's just doing what he said he was going to do."
There have been awkward moments. When Charlie Wi didn't think Foley was giving Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett, proponents of the Stack and Tilt method, their due, there was a public dust up. "He's done great," says Plummer. "I don't want any credit for his success at all. He's doing it all, but I think it's fair to say that his work has been greatly affected by ours as ours has been by The Golfing Machine book and Mac O'Grady and those who came before us."
Besides Plummer and Bennett, Foley acknowledges influences from Dr. Craig Davies on anatomy, to Gregg McHatton (his first instructor), David Leadbetter, Peter Kostis, Harmon, Jim McLean, John Elliott, Davis Love, Chuck Cook and on and on. "People go, 'You stole this information,' " he says. "I'm like, 'Stole what?' We've all taken it from Newton, haven't we?"
Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee has been Foley's most outspoken critic. "When I watch Tiger play golf and when I watch Hunter Mahan play golf and when I watch Justin Rose play golf, they make constant corrections to their swings. In between shots they are constantly rehearsing, not a swing but positions," says Chamblee, "which tells me they are not playing with any imagination, they're playing with automation. It's like they're addicted to an idea instead of the goal. Sean Foley appears to have part of this puzzle solved. He can get players to hit the ball straight. When I watch Tiger play, it's sad, I guess because it's Tiger and I feel we're being robbed of the most talented and animated golfer to ever play the game. Maybe some of the stillness has returned to Tiger's head, but the look he had before -- the romance, the imagination that he played with -- it's given way to science, similar in every aspect to a scalpel or Botox beauty queen with no soul."
Mahan would beg to differ. "I think Foley's got great awareness," he says. "He knows he's got little man's disease and he's got a little bit of an ego and he thinks he's right a lot of the time, but he backs it up with working hard and putting a lot of time and effort into knowing the golf swing better. Like Tiger, I mean, golly, he was dealing with so much. He was dealing with a guy who was going through a divorce, public humiliation, getting ridiculed by everybody and, on top of that, his swing was terrible. They've done a lot of great work and [Foley] gets almost no credit for it."
Woods seemed to rehearse fewer positions during his victory at the Memorial, and he and Foley altered their tournament routine there, getting together after rounds only, not before. In Columbus, Jack Nicklaus said, "I sat next to Tiger at the Masters dinner this year, and I was asking him, 'Why do you need somebody to watch you all the time?' He said, 'I really don't.' He said, 'I go to Sean and I get some ideas, but then I really go work on it myself and try to learn what I want to do and how I want to do it.' I said, 'If you're doing that, you're on the right track.' "
In his book The Big Miss, Haney says the distance between himself and Woods was, "a big miss for both of us." Foley tries to take Tiger as he found him. "Hey, look, this is how he is," says Foley. "He's just not the type of person to tell you what he feels or what he's thinking about. He's allowed to be that way. I know he cares about [caddie] Joe LaCava, and I know he cares about me. Would I like him to communicate better with me? Totally. Would it be helpful to me. Totally. Would it make us work better together? Absolutely. Did I know getting into it that he was this way? I completely did. He's a warrior. That's how he needs to be. The key to any teacher is to make himself obsolete to the student. The goal is to hit it in the fairway and hit it on the green and make putts and see where destiny leads."