Q&A: Foley talks Tiger, instruction, philosophy & more

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Sean Foley's profile has increased since he started working with Tiger Woods earlier this year.
November 22, 2010
Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM Site Producer

Much the way what Sean Foley is trying to teach Tiger Woods on the golf course is different than anything Woods has ever done with his swing before, Foley is a different kind of swing coach. Perhaps it's apropos then that his new instructional DVD is titled "Next Generation with Sean Foley." That's the kind of teacher Foley considers himself.

Recently, Foley sat down with PGATOUR.COM's Brian Wacker to discuss the DVD, his teaching philosophy and, of course, his newest clent, Tiger Woods.

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What prompted you to get involved with Tiger??

Obviously it came about because he's friends with Sean O'Hair and Hunter Mahan and he liked what they were doing. Trying to understand what they were doing was a different variation from what he was trying to do -- different teachers have different philosophies. But what prompted me more than anything was that I've always been one of his biggest fans and my goal has always been to work with the best. How different it is or whatever, I don't know. I could care less about the notoriety that comes with it. I've always taught golf and it doesn't matter if you shoot 100 or you're ranked No. 1 in the world, I still enjoy helping people.

Did you have any precautions of taking on Tiger as a client??

No. Not any more than I would with anyone else. You have to be able to enjoy being around the person and respect the way they are and how they treat people. The ethics have to be pretty close (to your own) because you're going to spend a lot of time together. If I ever met with a player and they were amazing but we didn't get along, I wouldn't keep doing it.

You mention ethics. How do you treat all that's gone on with Tiger in the last year??

What I know is what my dad always told me and that is if all of us looked at ourselves in the mirror for an hour, we wouldn't have anything to say about anybody else. I'm not a judgmental person. People do what they do. I have to focus on living my life. I'm not going to condemn anyone for doing what they do. It's not my life.

Somebody asked me if it's a little like coaching the Dallas Cowboys. Do you have the final say? What's the dynamic like?

It's a collaboration. These guys are on the PGA TOUR and they're all fantastic. I like to teach more the concept of if you do this, then this will happen. [Tiger] just asked me for some help. I never asked him. The thing that a lot of people forget is you can have TOUR players without coaches and without psychologists and without trainers, but you can't have coaches and psychologists and trainers without TOUR players. The issue, as I see it, is the amount of credit coaches take for players playing well. The fact is [the players] have to hit 280 shots under fear and under duress. I don't have to do any of that. My addition to what they're doing is far more minimal than media people make it, and I'm fine with that. Was it better for Phil Jackson's career to be coaching Michael Jordan, or for Michael Jordan's career for Jackson to be coaching him? Obviously Michael Jordan did much more for Phil's ring number than the other way around.

What are you trying to teach Tiger? It's a lot different than what he's been taught most of his life right?

More than anything, it's a minimalist approach. I remember reading in Mike Hebron's book, "The Art and Zen of Learning Golf," it says there are things that you cause to happen and things that you allow to happen. When you start trying to cause what's already allowed to happen, you're going to run into problems. There's a catalyst to certain things that you build in the backswing, and in the downswing there are things that are a catalyst to what happens in the through swing. If Jim Furyk's hitting it dead straight and Tiger's hitting it dead straight, the alignments at impact are identical regardless of how it looks like they got there. Sean O'Hair can swing the way he does because of his flexibility, whereas Stephen Ames has to swing at it a little differently to get the same shot shape because of what he brings to the table with his body type. The reason no golf swing will ever look truly the same is that people's hand length and arm length and strength and flexibility and how their body does or doesn't work are going to be different.

What's been the hardest thing Tiger's had to adjust to??

The pattern of movement is much different than what he's done. He's always moved off the ball, except in junior golf, and then his arms were always out in front of him rather than working in on the arc. But when you have residual motor patterns, they always come back in. Making the swing I want him to make isn't that difficult for him, it's just that there's always going to be traces of every shot he's ever hit.

How is it different working with Tiger compared to some of the other players you work with??

There's no difference. We're all just human beings. That's how I try to look at it.

But there's more media attention, demands on your time, etc.

But I influenced that.

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I heard someone say to you that now you know what it's like to be a politician; you were shaking so many hands. It's a different animal.

At the end of the day, like all the philosophy that I study and the philosophers I like, perception is reality. However I perceive it is what it will turn into. I get a thousand [interview] requests a month and this would be probably the sixth since August, so this is six out of 2,500 probably. I've worked hard to make my life more simplistic. I don't want to add complexity to it, but that's all up to me.

How often do you and Tiger talk??

We're in the day and age of texts so we'll text a little bit and in the off-season we work a couple days a week. It's not 10-hour sessions. It's an hour and a half, I'll go there, hang out, make sure everything's on the right track and if he has any questions I answer them. Then I have the ability to sit behind the Mozart of golf and sit there and watch it.

His last coach, Hank Haney, said he used to watch or record all of Tiger's rounds so if he called with a question he was prepared. Is your relationship that involved??

The key is that you have to go and do your job, but then you have to dis-attach from it all. I still have to look out for Sean and Hunter and Justin [Rose] and Parker [McLachlin] and Stephen [Ames]. Tiger's not going to get more of my attention than anyone else. I'm not going to stay up 'till 2 a.m. to see him play or whatever.

What's your relationship with Tiger off the course??

I think trust is earned and to me having a friendship with anyone is based more on respect and less on like. I like a lot of people that I don't respect. Some people I might not say I like them, but I respect them. That's much more a foundation of a relationship than anything.

Where does Tiger fit in??

Well you just don't force anything. You be who you are and everyone else will be who they are and if there are enough things similar then it probably works. It's like when you're single and if you change who you are when you meet someone. In the end, there's going to be conflict. It's never going to work out. If I am who I am and one of my guys don't like me, that's cool. It doesn't mean anything. It is what it is.

Talk about your new DVD that's coming out. What's the idea behind it? What are you trying to accomplish, other than obviously trying to help people play better?

You can't make it as analytical or technical as you'd like based on the fact people have to understand it. We put a ton of drills and skill sets in there that would improve anyone. I try to give people an idea of what I believe. They'll notice that we cross all the T's and dot all the I's. It's [part of] the next generation of teaching, too, guys who can talk about geometry and the necessity of having the core fire and the importance of face positions vs. get your elbow over your shoulder. That helped a lot of guys but this is a new generation.

What can the average player learn from watching a TOUR player??

Look at their grip and ball position and alignment and rhythm and how they always finish with 100 percent of their weight on the left side.

Should the average player even try to emulate anything a TOUR player does??

Skill happens through deep practice and repetition. If any golfer is trying to lower their score, the one thing they can do is watch how TOUR pros chip and putt and handle bunker shots. The average players could go from 100 to 88 if they made their short game 20 percent better.

Give me a few things the average player should work on or practice. You just hit on one of them.

It would be actually practicing it. Amateurs get out on the range and hit two 7-irons and 15 drivers then go play. At most, you're going to hit 14 drivers. That's not a good percentage. TOUR players practice to simulate shots they're going to take. Like Dave Pelz showed us years ago that 70 percent or whatever of your shots came from 120 yards in. They should he doing that. If they went and putted for an hour 2-3 times a week, within a month they'd be putting a lot better.

You mentioned philosophy; talk about your teaching philosophy.

Your teaching philosophy is going to be an underscore of your philosophy. The mantra for me is what Ghandi said in that we need to be the change we want to see in the world. So it's not to condemn what we're trying to change, and I think it was Aristotle who said, 'A man can't think his way to proper action; He has to act his way to proper thinking.' Don't tell me, show me. That's some deep stuff I understand, but it's definitely happening. I just try to lead by example with my guys. My swing philosophy is the same way. I'm not coaching golfers; I'm coaching human beings who deal with love and hate and fear and all those different aspects in the emotional arena. If you look at them as just a golfer, you're missing out.

Some people say your teaching method is a copy of stack and tilt, which was developed by Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett.

I have a lot of admiration and respect for Andy Plummer; I don't know Mike as well. Look, I'm here to help my players. I have everyone's DVD and why wouldn't I? You don't think Bill Gates never looks at what Steve Jobs is doing? You're a writer, so you know what, you can't read anyone else. It's not thievery, it's an application of Newton's Law. The funny thing is, the media did this whole thing about turf wars and Andy's a friend of mine. It's all created. It's all B.S. Andy knows the credit I've given him. If I went to a clinic and if I had to give credit to everyone, no one would hear anything. I've taken these ideas and put them into my own style. It's all very kindergarten. It's very high school cafeteria.

You have an interesting background, for another having played at historically black Tennessee State University. Talk about what that experience did for you and the influence it had in your life.

I think people turn into what they already were. I was raised learning about the struggle of underprivileged people around the world. That's how my parents were. Going to Tennessee State, it's tough to quantify, but being a Canadian kid it doesn't get more liberal than that. When I went there, I had no problem with it but people did. Is it right? No, but I could appreciate that. It changed me because I saw so much struggle and pain [in the world] and all that, but at end of the day it goes back to perception is reality. Like Bob Marley in Redemption Song, he says emancipate yourself from mental slavery none but ourselves can free our mind. And what Bob had figured out was the whole time while he was talking about the Babylon system and European imperialism that no one was holding him back but himself. The one thing Tennessee State taught me is you can't care what people think about you. I can care about what my wife thinks because she's earned the ability to, but outside of her, my parents and maybe two other people, I don't care because I can't. All the people out here who say I'm amazing, that's not true. And the ones that say I stole this theory or whatever, if they spent a day around me they'd realize I didn't. People are going to say whatever they want to say and you know what, that's freedom of speech.

You saw Tiger at a clinic in 1995 and could relate in some ways to what he was going through because of your own situation. What do you remember from that experience??

I just remember the sound the golf ball had coming off the clubhead. As many events as I went to as a kid, I was just in total awe of that. He hit like 15 different shot shapes. He was just so impressive and he's got that aura about him. That was a trip.

Did that influence you to become an instructor??

I was a so-so player; I was too analytical. I used to love watching instructors as a kid and I always loved to learn. The real thing that influenced me was when I went to the Canadian Open when I was 13 years old and I saw David Leadbetter and Butch Harmon working with Nick Faldo and Greg Norman. I told my dad that's what I want to do.

Back to Tiger. What have you learned about him??

It's all about hard work. It's nothing I haven't learned in my own life waiting tables for six years while I was teaching golf. That being said, the difficult thing is there's so much good stuff that happens from it you have to be careful you don't forget the people who balance your life. For me, that's my wife and son. The most impressive thing about Tiger, though, is his ability to concentrate. No doubt about it. He's so much more convergent on the ability to block everything out and that's definitely a taught skill.

Anything surprise you about Tiger??

No. Just more surprising is how good he is. I knew how good he was, but I never had ability to stand there and watch it. And to watch him hit 290-yard 3-woods to back pins on par-5s and have the ball land soft, every so often I go 'Whoa, that's unbelievable.' And that's something that no teacher would ever be responsible for.

What's been the best part of working with Tiger??

Just to see a dream come true. Working with Sean and [Justin] Rose and Parker and Hunter and Tiger; for those guys winning a major is their ultimate goal. Working with these guys was my ultimate goal, professionally. The next dream is to be a vehicle for social change and use golf that way. People will say 'Who's this guy think he is?' but if you talk to my parents I've been talking like this since I was eight years old.

Clarify that.

The last thing I would ever want is to be sitting above my funeral and someone come up to my wife and say what a great swing coach I was, because I was a person. I'm an instructor that's my profession, but I'm not even as much an instructor as a coach. How do you instruct the greatest player ever to hit a ball? If you're out on TOUR, there's so much more to the pie than that. Like my friend and Hunter's sports psych guy, Neil Smith, has in his performance pie -- balance and nutrition and all these things you wouldn't think are important, they're all in there. For example, I'd like to bring some attention to cause and effect behind poverty. And like the Gates' are showing, it doesn't take gazillions of dollars to get rid of something like malaria. I just want to affect things the most positive way I can. On the DVD, Sean says I not only changed his swing but that I changed his life forever and that came through loving Sean and dealing with him as a human being and not as a meal ticket. If we maximize his potential as a person, he plays better because there's less conflict and more clarity.

What's your overall goal as a teacher??

I enjoy helping people. It's as much philosophy as it is technical. I've seen a million great golf swings with a bad self image that just don't work. I've seen a lot of not technically good swings with good self images make millions of dollars. I'm just trying to be the change we see in the world.

Thanks for your time.

Anytime.