PARAMUS, N.J. – Sean Foley's pupils call him more than just a swing instructor.
He's part-mental guru, part-biomechanical engineer, part-motivational speaker and part-confidante all rolled into one slick-haired, tattooed, camera-wielding hipster package.
For the past four years, he also played another role – scapegoat. When Tiger Woods struggled, it was often blamed on Foley's teachings; when he prospered, it was often said that it happened in spite of him.
With Monday’s announcement that Woods is officially splitting with Foley to move in a different direction going forward, essentially he’s adding his name to the list of those who have labeled the coach a scapegoat during their time working together.
It might be perfect timing for Woods to make this switch, considering he’s still nursing a back injury and will be able to start anew when he returns to the range. There is some irony, however, in the fact that the announcement comes just one day after another Foley student, Hunter Mahan, claimed the title at The Barclays, which comes not far off the heels of yet another, Justin Rose, winning twice this summer.
As luck or coincidence or maybe intuition would have it, at Ridgewood Country Club this past week, I asked both of those players for their reactions to the ever-growing sentiment that Foley was the cause of Woods’ on-course travails.
“It's comical,” Mahan stated flatly. “It frustrates me and kind of angers me a little bit. But you know, that's the world we live in and that's just kind of the way things are, and Foley is better for it because he can handle a guy like Tiger – a lot comes with that and I think he's done a pretty good job of containing himself and not letting it bother him. He just does his job every day and does it better than anyone.”
Rose was more diplomatic, but no less adamant in his view that Foley has shouldered too much of the blame over the past half-decade.
“It’s difficult to hear,” he said, “because I put a lot of trust in him with my game and I believe in his abilities to help me with my game.”
To be certain, there were a few separate criticisms from the masses in play here.
One is that Foley’s teachings have led to a technically inferior swing for Woods. If he’d had enough attempts, Tiger would have ranked 168th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy this season, finding the fairway just 55.10 percent of the time. Is that an indictment of Foley or do the statistics of Mahan and Rose – who rank eighth and 74th, respectively, in total driving – prove that more blame should have been placed on the student than the teacher?
“You look at Tiger driving a golf ball and you look at Hunter Mahan driving a golf ball and to be honest, you look at how I drive the golf ball, it’s not like Sean’s missing a trick,” Rose explained. “It’s not like he doesn’t understand something, like his players can’t drive the golf ball. Some coaches have a certain method and their players hit six to eight [degrees] down on the driver and their players are never going to be great drivers of the golf ball. Sean doesn’t preach a method. From that perspective, I believe that he makes the appropriate fix for me. I work on the opposite things that Tiger works on. He’s trying to do the best job with each man from what he’s got to work with.”
Another major criticism is that Foley’s method caused undue pressure on Woods’ lower back, an injury which has plagued him for much of the past year, leading to him taking a second extended absence two weeks ago that will keep him out of competition until December.
“I think with Tiger,” Rose continued, “they’ve had to work around a lot of things. It’s probably very frustrating for Tiger and it’s probably very frustrating for Sean. … There are definitely moves that Sean is trying to get out of there that are compromising his health.”
And then there’s the constant criticism that Woods’ swing simply isn’t as good as it once was. That it pales in comparison with that of 2000, when he won three major championships and rarely ever hit one awry.
It’s this appraisal which so often leads to conjecture about why he left Butch Harmon’s camp in the first place and whether they could ever reunite once again.
“People say, ‘Oh, Butch 2000 – just go back to that.’ Unfortunately, it’s not possible, biomechanically and speed and wear and tear,” explained Rose. “I’m sure Tiger would love to do that; I’m sure there are many aspects of that Sean would love to recreate.”
“People have no idea who Sean Foley is and what he's doing,” Mahan said, “and obviously no one knows Tiger, so you're not going to get anything there. Most of the people haven't made any sort of effort to get to know Sean and understand what he's trying to do.”
For the past four years, Woods made that effort. He bought into Foley’s swing theories; he tried to listen, tried to make it work for him.
The results were mixed. Last year, he won five times; this year, even when he wasn’t injured, his game was a shell of its former self.
By officially cutting ties with Foley, he is essentially professing what so many others have claimed during this period: The instructor was the reason for his problems.
That might be true, but it shouldn’t serve as a full indictment of Foley’s skills as an instructor. The full picture must also include the resumes of two other high-profile players who have won this summer while crediting him – and while also empathetic to the constant criticism he’s received.
“I find it hard to see him criticized, because I believe a lot in him,” Rose said. “He’s a great guy and he’s sensitive. He takes it well and doesn’t take it too personally, but it’s difficult to hear when you’re giving it 100 percent.”