Tiger Woods is back in action this week at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia. PGATOUR.COM's Brian Wacker recently sat down with Tiger's swing coach, Sean Foley, for an exclusive two-part interview.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- It's a Wednesday evening at Miller's Ale House, a casual neighborhood tavern off the busy I-4 corridor just down the road from Walt Disney World Resort. Upon entrance to the Magic Kingdom that welcomes more than 40 million visitors annually is a sign that reads "Where Dreams Come True."
Sean Foley, who has coached Tiger Woods for the past two years, certainly is living his these days.
Over a few drinks and a plate of typical bar fare, Foley, dressed in designer jeans and a light blue-and-red Diamond Life T-shirt that matches his Nike Air Force One sneakers ("I like to look fresh," he says), opened up about his last two years of being the man behind The Man.
In the first of this two-part exclusive interview, Foley talks about rebuilding Tiger Woods' swing, the challenges both of them faced, how far they have come and more.
Q: I want to go back to that day about 10 years ago when you were sitting in a bar in Canada with Sean Casey, who's now the director of golf at Glen Abbey, and you saw Tiger Woods on television and you said "I'm going to coach him one day." What made you think you could??
SEAN FOLEY: I used to say it and then be met with a phase of ridicule. There are some things that are difficult to explain. It's like asking anyone about ideas like God or destiny. It's really difficult to put into terms and into words and to quantify. I can tell you that there probably weren't many people who ever thought [I would coach him]. But I've seen people like Nelson Mandela get thrown in jail and stay in jail for 27 years and then come out and become the president of the country. It's not just that he became president, but he came out forgiving his oppressors.
Even though that has nothing to do with my situation, to me as a kid, it was like, OK, if he's capable of that, what am I capable of? I always wanted to teach golf. There were a lot of things I wanted to do, and that's the benefit of being so young. And I just thought it would be cool.
Q: How much had you studied Tiger at that point and all the way up until 2010 when you guys started working together? Obviously one day you're on the periphery and then all of a sudden you're on the inside.
SEAN FOLEY: Well, it's a great story. When I was at the Canadian Open this year, I'm walking down the fairway, and I hear, "Foley," and I've learned just to not turn around, so I keep going. I enjoy speaking to people, but there's only 24 hours in the day. And then I hear, "Foley," and then I hear a guy say something about golf and I turn around and it's Angelo Lettieri, who was a buddy of mine in high school. Angelo, Kyle Beatty, John Manning and myself all met my first day of school at Notre Dame High School in Burlington in the principal's office. We were all in there within 10 minutes of the bell ringing. Shocker, right? That's 23, 24 years ago. That's wild, right? Ang -- and he could be an extra on the Sopranos, he's a classic -- goes, "Do you remember when we were 15 and I came over to your house in the summer?" They all played football and they called me Mr. Golf. They never even knew anyone who played golf. Let's just say there were trials and tribulations of playing golf in 1989 and '90 -- you could be slightly picked on.Now you've got Tiger and guys like Gary Woodland and Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan and it's cool.
Anyway, I'm 15 years old and we're watching golf and Nick Price was winning a tournament, and Ang said, "Who's that?" I said, "That's Nick Price, he's ranked No. 1 in the world." I said, "But there's a kid who is 14 years old who lives in California named Tiger Woods, and he's going to be better than everybody." So I've followed Tiger for the whole time. If you're in the game of golf, then you are a fan of golf. And I think if you're a fan of golf, in most cases you're probably a fan of Tiger.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced when you first started working with Tiger??
SEAN FOLEY: Just trying to understand how he learns, trying to understand physiologically what we had to adapt around. The thing about Tiger that's amazing is at 36, even though he's had issues with his Achilles and his knee surgeries, he's extremely fit. So he can make up for it elsewhere. But just more than anything, it's just trying to understand when you're communicating, when you're getting through, and when you're not. That takes time.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for Tiger when he started working with you??
SEAN FOLEY: Probably how much I talk. And he's not going to tell you, hey, you talk too much.
Q: I'm sure he does in his way. Does he give you a certain look??
SEAN FOLEY: Yeah, but I didn't know what it looked like. I'm aware now. When he and Justin (Rose) look like they're really paying attention, they've totally checked out. You've got to pick your spots. But when his life is the way that it is for him, and being the center of attention and people who have worked closely with him are now writing a book, trust is earned, it's just not given. I think when you've been burned, people have utilized their relationship with you to better themselves maybe in an unethical manner, what makes this obnoxious, opinionated little Canadian guy any different?
Look, you're looking at arguably today at age 36 the best player of all time. With another 12 years he becomes the best player of all time. It's inevitable. Well, let me take that back. I won't say it's inevitable, but he's got a massive opportunity to do it because he is that good. So [I'm] the person that you're going to listen to in order to do that -- that's a big decision.
Q: What was the low point for him with what you were trying to teach??
SEAN FOLEY: The low point for any athlete is injury. He's a very patient guy, and he's very collected. But ask Peyton Manning, ask any of those guys. I don't think it's so much the fact that they can't handle being injured, it's just that they can't do what is a huge part of them.
SEAN FOLEY: I won't speak for him, but he has said knowledge and the fact that all those guys were great ball-strikers. We worked a bit at the 2010 PGA Championship, but more than anything I probably have Sean and Hunter to thank for it. And then when I had my opportunity, I explained things in a way that was the direction that he wanted to go, so it was opportunity and chance. That's why there's so much humility in success, because you realize there are so many other factors that you have zero control over that have to go in your direction. But it was obvious that he had watched me behind them hitting eight million balls for five years. Then [Tiger] just asked me to basically take a look at his swing.
Q: The area he seems to have struggled with the most, at least lately, is his short game -- 125 yards and in, putting, etc. Why??
SEAN FOLEY: It's a function of making a swing change to ensure he can continue to play with no injury. The next 10 years, he's going to play from the fairway. It takes time to change patterns and movements, and then he went from a very weak grip to one that's slightly stronger than neutral [on every type of shot]. The thing is, when your grip gets as weak as it was, you have to use the hands and the arms to rotate the club to square. The club is moving at 117 miles per hour; there's way too much timing needed in that. People think if you want to fade it, just get the face open. Well, the face is open to the path but it's closed to the target line. So it is timing [in his hold swing] versus just setting it to where the face is going to be squared to slightly shut at the top and making it a body and a pivot movement rather than a lateral downward movement with too much timing with the hands and arms. The previous motion obviously had its good points and its bad points, like his ability from 6-iron down to just absolutely flag it was great, but it affected the driver.
You've got to remember, the driver is swinging the fastest, it's the furthest from you and it has excessive weight loads on it. He just got more and more stuck with that club. Those things are all going to continually injure you. When the club is moving that fast and it gets that out of position, all the energy that's not going into the ball is going somewhere, and the body is absorbing it. But now as you're starting to see those things turn around, the more he practices with [the new swing], he just starts adapting to that. The grip change was necessary to make the mechanics simpler, but they never looked simple in the first 20 months.
Q: What do you think about Johnny Miller's recent comments that early on in Tiger's career, Tiger asked Johnny to coach him??
SEAN FOLEY: You never know with Johnny Miller. He just says so much crazy stuff. I have no problem watching him. I have tons of respect for him as a player and how he saw the game and how he was unique and all that, but I don't know. And why it comes out now versus the last 13 years, I don't know. But look, Johnny Miller was an insane short-iron player.
Q: How far has Tiger come since the first day you started coaching him??
SEAN FOLEY: The thing is people ask, is he back? You can't go back. There's no such thing as back. Every day is a new day. We evolve or we don't. We probably as people evolve or devolve. We all go through phases of evolving and then we devolve. So with me, I probably evolved until I was about 18 and then I devolved for about four years, and then I evolved and then I devolved and then I evolved, you know what I mean?
Q: How much has he evolved the last two years??
SEAN FOLEY: I can only really speak to the last year because it's really been the only time that he's had the physical ability to go about it. The thing is basically all you're doing is rewiring an F-16. It already knows how to fly at unbelievable speeds; it can do anything you ask of it. But you just have to get into the integral wires and get them taken care of, and then it is what it is.
I've never, ever taught anybody to do something they can't already do. They either didn't realize they could or didn't know how to. You've got to remember, they're hitting the ball, so they're obviously capable of performing. Tiger has done extremely well in his career and is as good as anyone in the history of sports. I just tried to describe more of the why to things than the how.
Q: Tiger has reached a point where you guys don't spend as much time together, where you're not looming every swing or shot. Do you envision a time when Tiger doesn't need a coach??
SEAN FOLEY: I think you would hope for everybody that that would be the case. But the thing is that obviously I enjoy doing it, and it is how I make a living, so you just have to stay ahead of their curve and keep learning and learning and learning and learning in order to facilitate their questions. You're there to support them and they know they can trust you and they know that you're going to tell it to them like it is. I think sometimes it's less about coaching, like you look at John Wooden or Phil Jackson, it's less about the Xs and Os and it's just more about the human aspect of it.
Q: Do you envision yourself not coaching after Tiger because it's a little like where do you go from there, or is it just on to the next guy??
SEAN FOLEY: No, I enjoy it. That's what I've enjoyed so much about working with Seung-Yul Noh. I started with him at age 20, and he has so much to learn. He's a lovely player. But it's not so much to learn about golf. I'm 38 years old, 18 years older than he is. I've been through a lot of adversity and experience and I've read a lot and I've studied a lot and I've listened to a lot of smart people. It's just trying to find or pick the right moment to pay it forward. But the same time, I kind of have big picture dreams and visions.
Q: What are they??
SEAN FOLEY: I don't know yet. I'm living right now in one that I envisioned for a long time. I just see that the next vision is just wonderful kids who envision the same possibilities. It's not really about golf. I've done that for so long, it's just become part of what I do. When the guys win tournaments, it's cool, but it's great for them. They won the tournament. I didn't hit a shot. I didn't judge the wind. I didn't deal with crowd noise or fear or doubt or figuring out if I need to go 80 percent and hit down on the ball or 100 percent and try to pick it. I'm on the range, and I'm there for technical assistance and basically building their concept of why things happen. Not in my opinion, factual evidence.
Plato said insecurity comes from not understanding the concept, so when people are like, golf is all feel, it's all art; it isn't; it's all science, it's all math. It's like if a girl loses weight and someone says her dietician must be great. The person who literally sacrificed and dealt with all the urges needs to be given the props.
Someone said to me, "Your guys have won six tournaments this year and they've had 23 top 10s." I didn't even know that. The only reason I know they won six tournaments is because someone said that to me before. I'm fortunate enough to be making a living teaching guys who are way better than me at golf how to be a little more accurate or hit it a little farther. It's a dream gig.