Ten years ago, on a day in early April, a dozen coaches were gathered inside the Glen Abbey academy in Oakville, Ont., for a golf instructors’ seminar. Situated near the 10th tee of the famed course, the room offered a panorama of the sloping fairway beyond. To start things off, participants were asked to introduce themselves and say a few words about their goals. When Foley’s turn arrived, he cleared his throat. “In 10 years’ time,” he said, “I want to be the swing coach to five of the top 50 ranked golfers in the world.”
Everyone burst into laughter. Although the 26-year-old Foley was a distinguished enough instructor of Canadian junior golfers, his resumé with PGA Tour professionals was non-existent. No one believed his cachet as a junior coach could translate into a job with an established tour player. And with only a handful of Canadians on the PGA Tour, what were the odds that one of Foley’s junior players would make it to the big leagues?
Well, nearly a decade later, no one is laughing. Not only can Foley boast of having coached four of the world’s top 50 players—his stable includes Canadian Stephen Ames, Memorial Tournament-winner Justin Rose, as well as Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan, who won the Bridgestone Invitational last weekend—but if the rumour mill is to be believed, he may be close to picking up his fifth, and perhaps best, player. The buzz around the practice range, echoed by golf writers such as Steve Elling of CBS Sports and Bob Harig of ESPN, is that Foley is at the top of the list of candidates to replace Hank Haney as Tiger Woods’s next swing coach. Woods hasn’t replaced Haney since they parted ways in May, and, for the most part, his game has floundered ever since. Most recently he shot an abysmal 18 over par at Bridgestone, in what CNN called the “worst four rounds of golf he’s ever played as a pro.”
In golf, as in all sports, a good nickname is a sign you’ve arrived. Craig Stadler, a.k.a. “the Walrus,” looks like the sea creature he’s named after. Steve Pate, known for his meltdowns on the course, is dubbed “the Volcano.” Foley has ended up with “the Lama,” a nod to his Buddhist-like calm and philosophical approach to coaching. “Your golf game is not who you are,” he has enigmatically told players who beat themselves up after a disappointing round. Part sports psychologist, part motivational coach, part swing instructor, he produces results. He rattles off the statistics: Ames was ranked 56th in the PGA world ranking system; after he started working with Foley he jumped to 23rd. O’Hair went from 70th to as high as 12th. Rose leapt from 100 to 33. At the same time, Foley’s job remains the subject of an ongoing debate in the golf world: is the profusion of swing coaches turning golfers into robots, robbing the sport of some of its charm and personality?
Foley had an unusual pathway to his trade. Unlike Dave Stockton and Butch Harmon, notable instructors who turned to coaching following their careers as professional players, Foley has no real competitive credentials. It’s something he never aspired to. Foley, who plays scratch golf, told Maclean’s he has always been obsessed more with the game’s physics and mechanics. “I’ve wanted to be a swing coach since I was 13 years old,” he said.
The fixation began with a trip to Glen Abbey with his parents to watch the Canadian Open as a teenager. “I saw David Leadbetter on the range coaching Nick Faldo,” he recalls. “And I was more interested in the coach than the player. I told my dad right there that being a golf instructor was what I wanted to do.”
Foley attended Tennessee State University on a golf scholarship and studied political science. He then honed his skills at John Jacobs Golf Academy (which has branches across the U.S.) and in 2000 joined Glen Abbey as an instructor, where he created the elite junior development program and became the much-loved coach of young Canadian golfers trying to play their way into university golf scholarships south of the border.
One of golf writer Robert Thompson’s favourite stories about Foley originates from golf pro Chris Neale, whom Foley was working for at Glen Abbey 10 years ago. It was the eve of the Canadian Open, and all of Neale’s staff had been instructed to stay away from the PGA Tour pros. “But Foley was like a kid before Christmas,” writes Thompson. When an employee walked into Neale’s office to complain about a problem, Neale immediately knew it was Foley. “Neale walked down to the range and found Foley sitting on an overturned range bucket directly in front of Davis Love III,” Thompson recalls. “The pair were talking very animatedly.” Love, a PGA veteran, turned to Neale. “This kid knows a lot about the golf swing,” he said. Neale nodded and sent Foley on his way.
Foley now commands up to US$350 an hour to sit on an overturned bucket and talk with the pros. (As a coach, he is paid by commission.) He owes some of his changed fortunes to a fortuitous encounter with PGA golfer Stephen Ames. Foley met the Trinidadian-born Canadian in 2005 at the Granite Golf Club in Stouffville, Ont., during the Stephen Ames Cup, a competition featuring junior players from Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. During coaching sessions, as Foley advised juniors on their swings, Ames observed. A year later, Foley learned what a strong impression he’d made on Ames.
By then, Foley and his wife, Kate, had moved to Orlando, Fla., to work at the Core Golf Academy, a private school with a golf-driven curriculum. Shortly after the move, Foley got the call. “I was sitting behind the wheel of my car when Stephen rang me up with an offer,” he recalled. “He told me he’d give me three days to see what I could do. I was in such a state of shock I almost swerved into a ditch.”
Ames had been suffering from back problems and with Foley’s help, he revamped his swing to make it less taxing on his spine. The pain disappeared; his game was rejuvenated and Foley had caught his first big fish. Those three days turned into a permanent position and after Ames won the 2007 Children’s Miracle Network Classic, Foley began attracting more clients.
Foley works with Craig Davies, a chiropractor and fitness trainer in Orlando. He said his approach to the golf swing is highly empirical. He taught Ames to swing in a way that maximized club-head speed without stressing the hips and back. Justin Rose told Maclean’s that since working with Foley his nagging back pain has also disappeared. “I think that has a lot to do with the way I move through the golf ball now. I finish very much on my left side now. I feel very tall after I hit the shot and I think that’s taken a lot of the pressure off my back.”
Rose said there are elements of the “stack-and-tilt” swing in Foley’s teaching. Hailed as a revolution by its creators, Andy Plummer and Mike Bennett, the stack-and-tilt method has a golfer’s head aligned directly above the ball at address. But that’s where the similarities to Foley’s technique end. “The difference is Sean believes in distributing the weight during the backswing,” Rose said. Foley described his approach more broadly: it’s about biomechanics and maximizing weight training and nutrition to create a swing that minimizes effort while maximizing the torque of the legs, hips and arms.
In any case, his coaching is about more than science. Foley said sometimes a player forgets how well he plays. “It’s my job to convince them they’re better than they think they are.” He talked about setbacks, and how players handle pressure. “It speaks volumes about their golf game. Sometimes things are going to go wrong in the game or in your personal life. The important thing is to get back to equilibrium,” he said. “Take Tiger Woods, for example. He hasn’t forgotten how to win, he just has too much on his mind right now.”
It’s an old saw that golf is a metaphor for life, but Foley takes it further than most. A voracious reader, he’s been known to quote everyone from Carl Jung to Confucius during practice sessions. But, he confessed, “Sometimes my best coaching sessions are when I keep my mouth shut because I can I see that a player is right where they need to be.”
Rose, who jumped to Foley’s camp last year, told Maclean’s Foley’s philosophy was one of the things that attracted him. He said he trusted Foley in a way he no longer believed in his former coach, Nick Bradley. “The changes I made with Sean felt instinctive, more natural, more childlike,” he explained. “The very sensations that my previous coach was hoping to rid me of.” He said Foley’s approach has paid dividends in his game.
And in a way, Rose has returned the favour. It’s not just the rumours linking Foley to Tiger that are driving Foley’s stock higher. Rose was victorious in July at the AT&T National, less than a month after winning the Memorial, a tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus, where he’d fired an impressive six under 66 in the final round to secure his first victory on the PGA Tour in 162 starts. He credited Foley with advising him how to lower the trajectory of his golf ball, something that helped with the windy conditions that wreaked havoc on other players during the final round. “The changes I made with Sean Foley have enabled me to be a much better wind player,” he said in a post-win interview with reporters.
Foley, like many coaches, travels from tournament to tournament with his players, paying his own way. His clients compete with one another, but that’s never a problem. It’s a friendly group, and often all four practice together with Foley. But his brand of hands-on instruction, increasingly the norm on the PGA Tour, isn’t universally embraced. Commenting on ESPN during the U.S. Open in June, 55-year-old Curtis Strange, a golfing icon whose career peaked in the ’80s and early ’90s, said contemporary players are too dependent on their coaches and have sacrificed touch and feel in their quest for mechanical perfection. “In my day,” Strange said, “I saw a swing instructor once in the spring. But I didn’t have him with me all the time.” Strange isn’t alone in that view; fellow commentator and retired player Andy North has made similar remarks.
But the results of Foley’s coaching style are hard to argue with. The question now is, what about that rumour linking Foley to Tiger? For the moment, the current number one player in the world seems determined to work on his game alone. When the subject of Woods came up, Foley said he wasn’t comfortable discussing it. But one has to wonder if it won’t be long before a top-ranked player who’s fighting demons on and off the golf course turns to someone like Foley to help free up his game.
Coaching in the big leagues has its downsides. There’s the busy travel schedule, which doesn’t allow Foley as much time with his wife and their toddler Quinn as he’d like. During one chat with Maclean’s, Foley found himself stranded for an entire day at the Detroit airport after missing a connecting flight. “It’s a writeoff,” he said. At such times he falls back on his own advice. “A few years back this sort of delay would have caused a complete meltdown. But I’ve learned to make do with what life offers.” He talked about Karl Marlantes’s novel about the Vietnam War, Matterhorn. “I’ve read nearly 400 pages today,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the missed connection, that would never have happened.”