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Sean Foley gets a bad rap

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Leonardo da Vinci started painting the Mona Lisa in either 1503 or 1504, depending on whom you ask. For a few years, he worked feverishly on perfecting every inch of the artwork. He dabbled; he toiled; he tweaked. And then … he stopped.

The artist moved onto other projects and left the unfinished Mona Lisa to her own thoughts. Days became weeks; weeks became months; months became years. Eventually he got around to working on it again, finally finishing in 1519, shortly before his death. All told, it took some 15 years from beginning to end to complete the painting that now hangs in what Bubba Watson so eloquently refers to as the “museum that starts with an L.”

If da Vinci tried that in today’s need-it-now society, the art community would be in critical outrage. His Twitter followers would revolt; his Facebook friends wouldn’t be very friendly. Hey, it only takes about 15 years to produce a professional athlete from birth to the LPGA. Dude should be able to knock out a painting in one afternoon, right?

Sean Foley may not be modern-day golf instruction’s version of da Vinci, but he does work with the game’s Mona Lisa in Tiger Woods – enigmatic smile and all. Unlike the artist, though, Foley has dealt with criticism from the masses since the very moment he began working on his masterpiece last summer. From the Internet message boards to constant television analysis, the coach has shouldered much of the blame for Woods’ descent from the No. 1-ranked player in the world to 28th right now.

Never mind the fact that Woods was still dealing with emotional issues from a highly publicized personal scandal when they first started working together. Never mind the fact that he has been sidelined due to injuries that until this week have kept him from playing a full tournament since April. Never mind the fact that – and this is important – when Tiger previously overhauled technical parts of his swing, it similarly took him lengthy periods of time to see such changes come to fruition.

In 1998, Woods underwent swing changes with Butch Harmon and won only one title. Six years later, he altered his move with Hank Haney and also prevailed just a single time. In each instance, though, the long-term end result was greater success – either more dominance or more consistency.

The consummation of such efforts with Foley have yet to take place, but the sky isn’t falling nearly as precipitously as common sentiment would have us believe. Since starting to work with his new coach in an official capacity at last year’s PGA Championship, Woods’ results at individual tournaments are as follows: T-28, T-12, T-11, T-15, T-6, 2nd, T-44, T-33, T-10, T-24 and T-4. No, this isn’t the stuff of a world-beater, but it also isn’t inconsistent with previous results while undergoing changes with other instructors.

That hasn’t left Foley exempt from harsh evaluations of his tenure so far.

“I don’t lose sleep over any of it,” he says. “I lose sleep over serious [stuff]. This isn’t serious. If my players were saying it, it would be serious. I just wish there were more facts supporting these opinions.”

Foley understands that any critical analysis of his work begins and ends with the results of the game’s most recognizable figure. If Tiger plays well and his other pupils flounder, he’ll be lauded; if Tiger struggles, but all others achieve success, he’ll still get a bum rap.

How do we know? Because that’s exactly what has taken place over the past year.

Check the records: Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose each won twice last season. Jamie Lovemark started working with him and topped the Nationwide Tour money list. Cindy LaCrosse did, too, and led the LPGA Futures Tour list.

Even his former students still credit Foley for their success. Two months after parting ways with the instructor, Sean O’Hair won the recent Canadian Open and was asked afterward whether he could see the irony in leaving Foley, then winning.

“No,” he said matter-of-factly. “I don't think I'd be here without Sean Foley. Sean really helped me learn about myself and about my game. He took me a long way in a short period of time. I learned a lot with him. It was time to make a change, and really it's that simple. We're still close friends. We still chat quite a bit. You know, in this business nothing's guaranteed. We're always trying to find a way to play better.”

Woods has been mocked for continuous repetitions that working on his game is a “process,” but he’s hardly the first player to make that claim. Surveying a professional’s golf game – and his swing, in particular – should be an enduring and ever-adjusting review, continually open to advancing analysis.

“You don’t show them what to do,” Foley explains of his coaching theory. “You’re instructing people to be their own students. If you keep telling them what to do, they’re not learning.”

It’s a constantly evolving process, one that the deliberate da Vinci could appreciate. Nearly 500 years after his own masterpiece was completed, another one is still very much a work in progress. Like the artist, Sean Foley shouldn’t be evaluated until his work is done.