PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Sean Foley had a peaceful Tuesday morning on the PGA Tour. No more than a half-dozen people paid attention as he walked a practice round with a client who was coming off a strong finish that was sorely needed.
That would be Stephen Ames, who tied for third in Puerto Rico.
It’s that other client – Tiger Woods – who brings Foley more scrutiny than ever, and lately, more criticism.
Woods was 100 miles away in a made-for-TV exhibition on his home golf course, although that won’t stop the growing debate about where he is in this “process” of changing his swing, and whether he is heading down the right path.
Foley was expecting this when they first began working together last August at the PGA Championship.
“When I started with Tiger, I didn’t think it would be a month and then he’d kill everyone,” Foley said. “Remember, I got him right after Akron, the low point of his professional career.”
It was last year at Firestone, where Woods had won seven times and had never finished worse than fifth, that he had the worst 72-hole score of his career (298) and tied for 78th against an 80-man field.
A few months later, Foley said he stopped reading golf stories and turned the volume down when watching golf on TV.
He says the criticism doesn’t bother him.
“Look, I’m a Canadian who at 19 was a white kid at an all-black university,” said Foley, who played college golf at Tennessee State. “This couldn’t even be called criticism what I’m going through now.”
With Woods, criticism comes with the territory.
“For some reason,” Woods said last week with a grin, “I tend to get a little bit more scrutinized than most players do, analyzed to the nth degree about what goes on within one round of golf. That’s something new to him. He has not quite faced that. But he said the one positive thing is I’m always on TV, so he gets to look at a lot of golf swings.”
Hank Haney caught it just as bad, if not worse, when he was revamping Woods’ swing through 2004. One player jokingly said he was thinking about suing Haney for loss of wages if Woods didn’t regain his form.
Woods eventually picked up Haney’s instruction and went on to win six majors and more than 40 percent of his tournaments, astounding numbers that no one else in this generation has come close to matching—except for Woods earlier in his career.
Foley says he has an “alligator’s hide” when it comes to taking criticism. Trouble is, he also has an alligator’s mouth when it comes to talking, and he replaced a swing coach who has rice paper for skin and prefers to do his talking in 140 characters or fewer.
Haney took Twitter to an extreme last week during the Cadillac Championship.
It started last September when Foley said in an interview with foxsports.com, “Let’s be honest about this, it’s not like he was flushing it with Hank.” Then came an interview with golf.com in which Foley said nothing about Woods’ previous swing made any sense to him.
Haney fired off more tweets than Vijay Singh hits balls on the practice range, using Woods’ results as affirmation.
“I think it was more of a reaction to what I had said that I never fully understood what they were working on,” Foley said. “He’s got every right to comment back. But to the extreme and the amount … I was like, ‘Do you have anything else to do?’
“Tiger and Hank won a lot of majors, a lot of tournaments, and you can’t take that away from the guy. And he helped Tiger,” Foley said. “He’s allowed to say what he wants. If I offended him, I didn’t mean to. But Tiger helped build Hank’s career, not the other way around.”
All this must be somewhat amusing to Butch Harmon, who is not immune to criticism. Harmon recalls hearing the skeptics after Woods won the Masters by a record 12 shots and decided to overhaul his swing.
“Everyone said we were crazy, that I was going to ruin him,” Harmon said Tuesday.
It worked out OK.
Even now, as it was when Woods was with Haney, there are a number of experts who think Woods ought to just go back to Harmon and repeat what he was doing in 2000 when won 10 times around the world, including three straight majors. Harmon says it’s not that simple. The equipment is different, Woods’ physique has changed and “he’s had three surgeries since I had him.”
Harmon came from a no-nonsense family of golf teachers – father Claude, a former Masters champion, along with brothers Billy, Craig and Dick, who died five years ago. He also had the experience of taking Greg Norman to No. 1 before working with Woods.
His only advice is to Foley as a coach, not what Foley is coaching.
Harmon says Foley has it the toughest because he took the job when Woods was at his worst – not only with his golf game, but trying to patch together a personal life torn apart.
“I had it the easiest,” Harmon said. “I had him when he was a teenager. He was young. He did everything I asked him to do. He wasn’t married. He didn’t have those outside problems. Sean is young (36). He’s got a big ego. He’s been thrown into a difficult situation. He probably got Tiger at the worst time. When Tiger left me and went to Hank, he was still a good player.”
Harmon said he has talked to Foley about not letting the media beat him up, to accept praise and criticism in equal measure, and to expect the latter far more often.
“He’s never been in the hot seat,” Harmon said. “And this is a hot seat.”