Sean Foley Q&A: Interview with Tiger's coach, part 2

October 23, 2012
Brian Wacker, PGATOUR.COM Staff
Part I
Foley discusses Tiger's progress since 2010, problems with short irons, and how he thinks Tiger will play in the next 10 years. Click here to read Part I

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. -- What do Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy see in each other? Plenty. So does Sean Foley, who has coached Woods for the past two years.


After opening up about what that process has been like, Foley discussed the friendship that has developed between Woods and McIlroy. He also shared insight on his other players, which includes Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose and Seung-Yul Noh, and in the past, also Sean O'Hair and Stephen Ames.

In the second of a two-part exclusive interview, Foley talks about life in a vacuum, why he doesn't sign autographs and where he draws his own inspiration from.

Q: You were out here with Stephen Ames and Sean O'Hair and Justin Rose and Hunter Mahan before you even became Tiger's coach. But there are a lot more eyeballs on you now. How do you deal with all the attention and criticism??

SEAN FOLEY: I recognize that it's part of the job. You deal with all the speculation and insinuation and realize the path you need to take as a coach has to be based in evidence so you always know you're on the right path. Whether it is numbers from TrackMan or statistics, they show you that you're moving in the right direction. We're dealing with neuroplasticity, we're dealing with insulating neural circuits and getting them to fire according to certain signals. That's exactly what it is.

This takes time. Why do they have it sometimes and other times they don't? I take solace in the idea I shouldn't guess what I can measure. I realize what [a critic's] job is, and I get it. It may not be what they want to do; it could be what they're asked to do. But when you see agendas, there's nothing you can do.

Q: Has all the attention or criticism been hard on your family, specifically the last two years? You're very private when it comes to them.

SEAN FOLEY: You'd probably have to ask them. My wife (Kate) is pretty honest with me, but I wouldn't say so. It's probably been hard on my mom and dad who actually pay attention to all the nonsense they read about. But I'm doing what I always dreamed of doing, so it hasn't been tough. If anything, it's been invigorating and exciting.

Q: When it comes to responding to critics, or talking about Tiger do you bite your tongue a little more now than maybe early on??

SEAN FOLEY: Of course, but when it comes to situations dealing with ethics of what I'm doing I have no problem responding. You have to stand for something and you have to confront things that bother you. That's important. The only reason I talked a lot early on was because I thought I had to. I thought it was part of my job. But so often I would read a quote with words I never said. And then it's just not buying into the nonsense of how we communicate today and the business aspect of dot com.

For example, some of the guys who wrote that we're now in the Rory McIlroy era are the same guys a few months ago who said Rory needs to get rid of [girlfriend] Caroline Wozniacki because his relationship was the cause of a slump. First of all, if you think that, then you know nothing about golf because you don't realize the ebbs and flows of this game. And second, are you seriously watching this kid and pointing out on TV all the flaws that he has in his golf swing? Whoever's saying that must be told to say that or must have an agenda. I think sometimes criticism is confused admiration.

Q: I have a feeling you read more about yourself or your players than you're letting on, though.

SEAN FOLEY: That's probably true, but I feel like I need to know what I'm going to get asked about. That said, I enjoy reading about golf in general. It's like a businessman reading the Wall Street Journal. It just makes sense.


Q: Let's talk about Rory. He and Tiger have struck up a friendship. What's your viewpoint on their relationship, and is Tiger motivated by Rory??

SEAN FOLEY: That's a question for Tiger, but Tiger is the ultimate competitor. I think it's like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy reading each other's work. In Tiger's case, he's watching this young kid who hits it really far with a little draw and does everything well. It's like the saying that game recognizes game. Look, Rory is a wonderful kid. I met him when he was 17 years old and he's not changed one bit as a person. He's great for golf. I think you have to be careful when comparing players from different decades and eras, though. Comparing players in the '50s to the '80s to the '90s to the 2000s is really useless because the game is different from one era to the next. There's a mutual admiration between Tiger and Rory and they're both likeable people and that's why they get along.

Q: Take Tiger out of the equation because you're his coach; will Rory be the best player in the world for the next 10 years? Is there that much separation between him and everybody else?

SEAN FOLEY: We're way too early into his career to make those claims. I see all the signs of unbelievable golf, and all he's going to do is grow and become more mature. But let's say within the next five years he gets married, has kids and his priorities change. If I look at myself 15 years ago, I went from being broke and struggling to having some money to being heartbroken to being in love.

A lot can change in 10 years. I just don't think it's a good idea to look into the future for what's next for Rory, or what's next for Tiger. But if everything that needs to go Rory's way continues the way it has, then he's going to be one of the great players for the next decade. There are a lot of variables that go into that we don't have control of, though. That's the thing about Tiger that's crazy, is that he has kept up that level of play for as long as he has.

Q: Is the talent pool is deeper now than it was when Tiger was winning everything??

SEAN FOLEY: Yeah, but Tiger changed the paradigm. The reason that there are Rorys and Dustins and players of that ability is because they grew up watching this guy in a red shirt on Sunday. A lot of those kids didn't know it was possible, that golf could be that cool until they saw him do it. It brought athletes to the game. [Before Tiger] golf wasn't cool to a lot of people. Then they saw Tiger, and they thought, that's amazing, that's what I want to do. I think that's what Jack Nicklaus was for Tiger.


Q: You grew up idolizing guys like David Leadbetter and Butch Harmon and other instructors. What are your relationships like with other coaches; do you have relationships with other coaches??

SEAN FOLEY: Yeah, 100 percent. I treat people as I want to be treated. I want to be treated with respect and dignity, so I'm going to give that to everybody. The fact is we're all in it for the same reason -- we love golf. And we're in it because we enjoy helping people. That is the catalyst to all of it. I like to hang out with Dale Lynch and Steve Bann. Another good buddy is Mark Blackburn; Mark McCann; I like Claude Harmon; I like Butch (Harmon). Pete Cowan I'm close with. I feel like I see Pete and he sees me. I feel the same way about Chuck Cook.

There's a lot in common there. But it's not competitive. I know if I do the best job I can, and I read and I work and I experience and I keep trying to learn, that if my guys move on, then it's not going to create any angst. The only person I'm going to be upset at is myself. To me, all the turf wars and this teacher said this and this teacher said that, that stuff died in the high school cafeteria. I basically like everybody. It's interesting, if you think about your friends is there anything about your friends that you don't like? Sure, but you just focus on what you like. And then with the people that aren't your friends is there anything about them that you do like? Of course there is but you don't focus on that. When I realized that, I thought, what if I just focus on what I like about people but also realize life is not a popularity contest? Life is all about self determination.

Q: Do you share ideas with guys??

SEAN FOLEY: 100 percent. Why not? Where do you think I learned what I learned? Very little of what I know at all is original.


Q: You're recognized all the time at tournaments but don't sign autographs. Why??

SEAN FOLEY: I was at the 2007 Masters with Stephen Ames. Remember how cold it was? Freezing, right? I was with Stephen's caddie, Dean Elliott, and we were walking toward what's now the old driving range and I saw a couple of people signing autographs who I didn't recognize until I got closer.

It was people who were in the support role, a couple coaches. I turned around and said to Dean, "If you ever see me do that, I want you to hit me over the head with a golf club." At the end of the day, it's nice to be recognized and it's nice to be cared about. But you can have PGA TOUR players without having PGA TOUR coaches and PGA TOUR sport psychologists and PGA TOUR trainers.

But you can't have us without any of them. I'm the help and I'm OK with that. If I ever took a kid who was 8 years old and they went all the way to where they won the U.S. Open, I would sign an autograph -- like Jim Furyk's dad should sign autographs. The rest of us have been basically allowed to help out people who were already 95 percent developed.

Q: You have a handful of tattoos -- not something you see every day in golf. What do they all mean??

SEAN FOLEY: (Pointing to wrists) Compassion, gratitude, empathy, love.

Q: What prompted them??

SEAN FOLEY: I just kept thinking about what do I want to teach my kids more than anything? Compassion for themselves and others. Empathy, people say, 'What's the difference between compassion and empathy?' Compassion is care; empathy is just realizing that a homeless guy maybe isn't lazy or doesn't try, that he may have mental issues or went to Vietnam or Iraq and got messed up watching his friends get blown up. So, not condemning and judging people. And then gratitude and then love. I think love ties them all together. Those are the four tenets of the Foley household, and I put them all there because I see it every day. They're a reminder of the four values I'm trying to accomplish in my own life.

Q: You have three more on your shoulder with the letters K, Q and K. What about those??

SEAN FOLEY: (Pointing to left shoulder) Kate, always, if she keeps me (laughing). So far I've totally outkicked my coverage. Quinn, with perspective, and Kieran, with courage. Quinn, perspective, just because it's my first child. I remember the first day I held him, it all just shifted. And then Kieran with courage because going through what we went through with him, I found the strength in myself I didn't even know was possible. ((Editor's note: Kieran was born with a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, a condition in which an abnormal opening in the diaphragm can lead to parts of the stomach or other abdominal organs moving into the chest cavity. He has since been deemed 100 percent healthy.))

Q: And then you have another one on the other shoulder, a Jamaican colored star.

SEAN FOLEY: It's just kind of my ode to Bob Marley, who in pretty much one way or another, his songs raised me since I was 12 years old. I had great parents and everything, but at some point, kids 13, 14, they stop listening to their parents. I think with Bob, he just spoke to me in such a wise way.

You think about the lyrics to War. I was 13 years of age the first time I heard them: Until the philosophy which hold one race superior / And another / Inferior / Is finally / And permanently / Discredited / And abandoned / -Everywhere is war - / Me say war. That until there no longer / First class and second class citizens of any nation / Until the color of a man's skin / Is of no more significance / than the color of his eyes / - Me say war. That until the basic human rights / Are equally guaranteed to all, / Without regard to race / - Dis a war. That until that day / The dream of lasting peace / World citizenship / Rule of international morality / Will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, / But never attained / - Now everywhere is war - / War. I'm 13 and thinking, what is that? So I start thinking why do people have friends who are all white and they have different color eyes? It's not like you have green eyes I can't talk to you. I remember being a certain age watching Mississippi Burning, and thinking people lived like this? I was in a family where if you came home as a kid and made a racial or a sexist joke, my parents would have been infuriated with me, as they should be. I'm pretty happy-go-lucky, but when it comes down to certain things I'm extremely serious. That's especially true when it comes down to human rights and treating everyone with dignity.

Q: You ever wonder how the hell you got here??

SEAN FOLEY: Every day. If I can get out of my own way of self judgment and thinking about useless stuff that I have no control over, like we all deal with, then it always hits me with total gratitude. It reminds me how fortunate I've been.