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Inside the Green Jacket

Since fall 2010, the fast-talking Canadian named Sean Foley has been front row for the greatest show in golf —swing coach to PGA Tour star Tiger Woods. But the stalky, brash, and always quotable Foley is more than a tinkerer of golf swings. Furnished with one-liners from physics to philosophy, he can be a helpful shaper of thoughts and a disciple of clarity —important qualities in a golfing world full of massaged egos frolicking on manicured lawns.

As a technician, Foley’s been praised for his keen analytical eye —dissecting swing flaws with ease. But as a coach, even to the professionals, Foley is something of a sage. At any level, teaching is more than reducing the number of strokes a player takes from the first tee to the final green, it’s about understanding a player’s personality and how they react to myriad influences that make the sport’s 18 holes the most exciting or trying of any game. For that struggle, a player needs an ally on and off the course. I know it well. Foley was my closest ally, nearly a decade ago.

At the time, I found Sean Foley buried in the small office adjacent a garage full of golf carts at Glen Abbey Golf Club in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. From a space he shared with his boss and mentor, Tom Jackson, Foley would often emerge from the drab cubby with his signature close-cropped hair, quick —almost jerky— step, and his laser quick tongue at the ready. As an 18-year-old who had dedicated his life to the sport, I looked up to him as the consummate and confident professional he already was, even if his major clientele was still the sport’s youth.

But at Glen Abbey, where golf tips and tricks were in heavy supply, Foley and I spent more time talking Chomsky or Gandhi, discussing songs by American hip-hop artists or chatting about life off the turf, than we ever did debating swing plane or spine angle. And it didn’t seem to matter. Foley is an observer, a watcher of the fickle machines (the human body) and he had a leer that would pinpoint exactly where the defect lay. But what he taught me, and what was often so frustrating, was that the error usually wasn’t physical at all.

In those early years in Canada, after the fatigue of the day’s labor had cleared most students off the driving range, I’d find myself alone, hitting golf balls, beside Foley as afternoon turned to evening. In silence, with clothes pressed and professional, Sean would stand on the range, club in hand, purposefully cocking and un-cocking wrists, folding elbows and coiling shoulders – a never-ending series of movements in search of a fix, the secret, in his and all other golf swings. He would spend hours thinking, practicing and analyzing his own tapes to understand what went right in his best swings. He’d try to internalize those lessons, processing them until it was intelligible and only then would he get down to the hardest of tasks: translating those lessons for each of his students. Those evenings, cast in fading light, the crisp sound of a well-struck golf ball was the only hint that Foley was still there.

Golf, like many other sports, is based as much on feel as it is on mechanics. Trying to describe feel is a task fraught with error, and nearly impossible for the many who try. But to teach at the highest-level also demands a close connection between coach and student —coaches need to understand their students so thoroughly that the discussion of swing fixes can happen at all.

For that reason, it comes as little surprise that most of his students today —a collection of the youngest, brightest and arguably the best on tour —describe him as a buddy, role-model and even, in the case of world number five Hunter Mahan, the other half in a weird married couple. Building the relationship between teacher and pupil, is often more important than the lessons that are subsequently exchanged.

But with most stars that rise quickly, Foley has been trapped under the microscope, particularly as he attempts to direct the struggling former world number one, Woods, back on course. The naysayers claim he’s too analytical; that he’s peddling life lessons like snake oil and getting in the way of the greatness Woods once possessed. Others challenge his method —claiming that he’s simply incorporating the teachings of others, re-packaging the industry’s copyrighted material for his high profile clients. And while Foley refutes those claims, part of him doesn’t care at all. What many spectators forget is that the world’s oldest game is more about what you think than what you do. And thinking is what Foley does best.

The last time I saw Sean was in the spring of 2007. I’d just finished a disappointing semester of golf at an American university and sought out his careful eye in its new home: Orange County Golf Club just outside Orlando, Florida. In his well-furnished office, mere feet from the closely mown driving range, Foley greeted me with his trademark smile —ready for the cameras that would soon be trained on one of North America’s best young teachers. While the room was an upgrade from that small dull cubby north of the border, his desk was still lined with texts on physiology and physics and he talked animatedly about the latest theory he was beta testing. Together we chatted a little about golf, and more about life, as he watched me struggle with a sport that I’d grown increasingly frustrated with.

But with a careful pointer and a knowing glance, Foley patched me up before excusing himself to go meet another client, his most recent, in an ever-increasing cadre of collected talent. But as he walked away, what struck me was a lingering sense of impertinence —the missing goodbye and customary “keep me posted.” In the year that followed, I thought back to that afternoon often as I struggled with the sport I’d long-loved, before eventually leaving school and the game the next August. But even now, I can’t help but think about Foley’s last look and wonder. Maybe it wasn’t impertinence at all. Maybe he’d known all along.

It’s that depth of understanding that makes a partnership work —both on and off the course. What you don’t see from Tiger Woods, or even from Sean Foley, is the so much practice, preparation and coaching happens away from the range. It happens in conversation over meals and discussions as they walk the fairways, talking about family, friends, books and the parts of a player’s life not covered by CBS Sports in high definition. In those quiet moments, bonds are forged, trust is created and coaches can come to know a player even better than they know themselves. That’s part of the magic, and certainly the intrigue, but it’s also necessary. In a sport commonly followed one weekend at a time, it’s when championships aren’t on the line that the foundation for success is securely built. In these moments, even the greats need a builder they’re comfortable with.