The many different sides to Sean Foley

Sean Foley Main

Possilpark is an incongruous place for a story about fame and fortune to begin, yet here we are.

Located just to the north of Glasgow city centre, it’s a district that, according to a 2018 study, has the dubious distinction of being the UK’s most deprived area.

Unemployment is rife. Drug abuse even more so. It has the lowest life expectancy of all neighbourhoods in Glasgow - a city that was, not all that long ago, identified as having the lowest life expectancy in the whole of the UK.

You get the picture. 

Possilpark is a grim grey space in the ‘Dear Green Place’. All of which makes it quite extraordinary that it enjoys a curious link to Tiger Woods.

Between 2010 and 2014, Woods was coached by Sean Foley, the Canadian son of Glasgow expat Gerald Foley.

Gerald was born in 1940 in another notorious Glasgow neighbourhood, the Gorbals, before his family moved across the River Clyde to Possilpark.

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“They basically lived in a shack,” explains Sean. “My dad was one of five children. My grandmother was an amazing woman. She worked three jobs for them to get by. Unfortunately, my grandfather was an alcoholic and abusive with it. It was very Angela’s Ashes.”

Despite the environment he grew  up in, Gerald was academically gifted and, after performing well in state testing around the age of 13, he was able to go to boarding school in England. He later became a chemist and emigrated to Canada to work for the world’s largest chemical company DuPont.

“He left Scotland with $200 in his pocket and, 40 years later, retired as the vice-president of medical products for DuPont Canada,” explains Foley. “The guy was very, very effective and efficient. I don’t think anybody has ever said a bad word about him. He’s one of those guys, you know?”

Young Gerald had several loves: his work; his wife, Donna; his sons, Sean and Kevin; and, like all good Scots, football and golf. He spent 20 years as the head of the referees’ association for the Canadian Soccer Association, officiating over some of the biggest games in Eastern Canada. His excellent inter-personal skills and easy manner, meanwhile, made him the perfect candidate to do business on the golf course for DuPont. As soon as they were old enough to play, he introduced his two sons to both sports.

“I actually think a career in football is what my dad wanted for me,” says Foley. “If he could have had it his way, I would have been playing in the World Cup. Actually, scratch that. What he really would have wanted would be to see me don the green and white hoops.”

Ah, there it is. 

You can take the boy out of Glasgow, and all that.

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“My dad is a huge Celtic fan,” he laughs. “I remember, during a family vacation to Scotland not all that long ago, we went to Kilmarnock to watch Celtic play. I had brought a bunch of clothes with me but, you know, knowing a little about the Celtic-Rangers rivalry, I really didn’t want to go into an opposition stadium wearing any colours that could mean something. I figured, you know what, I’ll just go neutral… and so I wore an orange jumper!

“I remember being in there and thinking, ‘F**king hell, there’s a lot of people looking at me. Maybe they think I’m from the Netherlands or something.’ It wasn’t until afterwards that my dad explained the whole ‘Sons of William’ stuff to me. The funny thing is, I studied theology at university so you’d think I’d be at least a little clued-up on the various religious leanings of my own dad’s hometown.”

Sean Foley Laughing

Foley enjoyed playing football but preferred golf. “The thing about football is that I didn’t like the fact that I could lose because someone else screwed up,” he admits.

Foley got good at golf. So good, in fact, that he was offered a scholarship by Tennessee State. However, unlike most of his classmates, he had no ambitions to play on the PGA Tour. He admired all of the game’s top players. The Nicklauses, the Faldos, the Normans, the Langers and the like. But his heroes were their coaches.

“Guys like Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter, I remember seeing them when I was younger and thinking they were just amazing because you had all these world-class players, and they were the people teaching them how to get the most out of their talent. I loved that.”

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The man he admired most of all, upon whom he would model himself? Bob Torrance. “I don’t have my coffee and booze on the range but, to me, Bob was an icon. He was an intuitive genius. Of all the people I’ve met, I’ve only ever been star-struck meeting Bob.”   

Foley's upbringing consisted of three constants: golf, music and reading.

“They’ve been my only passions since I was ten years of age. I’m pretty much tri-focused. I don’t really go outside of those areas.

“I’ve been around elite players from a very young age, just observing, sitting on wire baskets and watching them hit golf balls. When I wasn’t on the range, I was reading about Mandela and Dr. King and Hitler because those were the kind of books that my parents directed me towards.”

Which brings us neatly to his coaching philosophy – philosophy being the operative word. Foley is a deep thinker. Erudite, well read, analytical. Asked how or if he adapts his approach depending on the personality of the player he’s working with, he takes a pause, a deep breath and then explains.

“I don’t really think the idea of personality is scientific. Think about  a deer, right? A deer becomes a deer in, like, three minutes. It’s born, it comes out and it’s almost at top speed. A human baby takes so much time in order to get to a point where they can become self-sufficient. So, the wiring we have as people, it can’t be that  deep because if it was, a baby would come out and be a child quickly, but they don’t.

“Current science basically says  we have 20,000 genes, 86 billion neurons and 200 trillion connections. The DNA that we have and the hard wires that come from our ancestry through evolution accounts for five per cent of our brain function. The rest comes from environment and experience.

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“So, when people say ‘personalities’ and this and that, I don’t really focus on that. What I know is that people in a good mood are a certain way and people in a bad mood are a certain way. When you’re in a good mood, you have no issues with being resilient and patient. There’s no problem. For example, I’ve been in a good mood and got bad news and been okay with it. Similarly, I’ve been in a bad mood and got good news and was pissed off by it.

“A human being is made up of electromagnetic fields, just like everything else in the universe. That’s why, for eons, people have talked about the energy of the healers and the enlightened ones. Jesus, Krishna, Buddha – it’s always about energy. That’s what we are. We’re bio-electric. So, I try to take more of a scientific approach to human beings than a sports psychology look.”

There is very little that comes out of Foley’s mouth that hasn’t been given careful consideration. Clichés, as you can imagine, are soundbites he has little time and zero use for. 

“You know when you hear somebody say, ‘This player just needs to trust in themselves’? I mean, what is that? What a load of shit. What does that even mean? It’s such a cop out.”

* * *

NOW 46, FOLEY’S PASSION for teaching burns as intensely as ever even if, physically, he’s starting to pay the price for his enthusiasm. “I’ve got arthritis in my knees and ankles,” he sighs. “That’s what happens when you’ve spent pretty much every day since you turned 30 standing on a driving range. But the flip-side is this: I don’t think anyone watched more sunrises and sunsets over the last 15 years than me. There’s something to be said for that.”

In 2006, he and his wife Kate quit their jobs and moved from Toronto to Orlando so Foley could pursue his dream of coaching the world’s best players. He found the courage to make the move in the pages of books by Napoleon Hill and Neville Goddard. “It’s a big part of what they wrote about, being able to see in your mind what it is that you want to achieve in such a way that it almost feels real. And after that, well, yeah, you’ve got to work your ass off.”

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After enjoying success with established PGA Tour pros, including Sean O’Hair, Hunter Mahan, Stephen Ames and Parker McLachlin, Foley started working with Justin Rose at the end of 2009. The following August, after months of speculation, he was announced as Tiger Woods’ new swing coach.

In doing so, he followed Butch Harmon and Hank Haney and, as the former admitted in a Golf Digest interview in 2012, Foley had the toughest job of them all. “He got an older Tiger Woods who had four knee surgeries, who had a lot of off-course problems,” conceded Harmon. “I never had to deal with any of that.”

In four years with Foley, Woods won eight times but, significantly, failed to add to his haul of 14 major victories – the measure by which the former world No.1 and all those who work with him have come to be judged.

In short: right man, wrong time.

“I started with Tiger when golf was pretty much as hard as it had ever been for him,” admits Foley. “He said to me, ‘I came to you because you’ve helped good players become great.’ So, it was amazing but it wasn’t by any means easy. Imagine starting anything with someone as they’re going through the crushing aspect of divorce and custody issues. I don’t care how mentally strong you are, that’s not a function of your mind; that’s a function of your heart and when your heart is broken, it’s tough to really do anything well.

Sean Foley Tiger Woods

“Looking back on it now, I think I probably over-coached him. I was there at a time when he needed someone to support him. It was a time in his life when a lot of people who’d been in his life for a long time started to ditch him. I think, unfortunately, I approached it from the point of view that good technique will take care of everything. Honestly, sometimes I giggle to myself when I think about it. Like, what was I even trying to tell Tiger Woods? Honestly. I remember one time he wasn’t chipping well and he asked me to take a look. If I had the chance again, I’d probably say, ‘Dude, you’re Tiger Woods. It’s chipping. Look within yourself. I’m sure you have the answer.’”

Despite their partnership never enjoying the success either man had anticipated, Foley retains an enormous amount of respect for Woods.

“I was always a massive Tiger Woods fan,” he says sincerely. “I still am. I actually look forward to him getting older and the world being able to see what he’s all about. He’s a very elegant guy, very thoughtful, very caring. But being that famous isn’t easy. I don’t think anybody wants that. At one  point, he was probably the most famous human being in the world.  Can you imagine what that must be like?”

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More recently, Foley has helped choreograph Danny Willett’s return to form, engineered Lee Westwood’s ‘Indian Summer’ and answered the call from Lydia Ko. In the case of the latter, he's out to help the former women’s world No.1 rediscover the ruthless streak that saw her win 14 times on the LPGA before her 20th birthday. He says he charges all of his clients five per cent of their winnings because that’s what he believes his input amounts to.

“I’m five per cent of a missed cut and I’m five per cent of a win. If we say  a caddie is, on average, around eight per cent, that means 87% of the success and failure is on the guy hitting the shots. It’s important people understand that because, in golf,  failure is constant. It happens almost every 15 minutes. So, it’s very easy to fall into the conundrum of victimisation which, in turn, becomes the blame game. The people who go the furthest in life are the people who are okay with taking ownership of when and where they’re f**king up.”

Foley is 100% straight-talking and zero per cent B.S. He doesn’t entertain fools. Opinions, he says, are the “medium between knowledge and ignorance”.

“I live in a fairly affluent neighbourhood,” he adds. “You can’t get in without having been successful. So, anyway, I was at a house party nearby recently and this lady said, ‘We have to make sure that our guns are in our safes because when ANTIFA and Black Lives Matter come into this neighbourhood, we have to be prepared.’ I mean, what?! And get this, her husband is the president of Pepsi in North America. 

"You hear these things being said and you know that the person saying them is way smarter than that but the problem is that they’ve got this phone, they become so conditioned to giving out ‘likes’ and getting little dopamine hits from receiving ‘likes’ that, before you know it, they’re addicted to that process. All the while, they’re subliminally reading all of these crazy messages.

Sean Foley 3

“I can’t help but think that if you put a gun to their head, they’d go ‘Oh my God, what the hell was I thinking?’ But that’s the way it works: you have to manufacture consent in order to manufacture fear. Hitler said that in Mein Kampf. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was an evil f**k but he was very effective in getting what he wanted.”

A dependence on cyber affirmation is something Foley sees in a lot of young professional golfers, much to his dismay.

“When they’re done practising or playing or working out, they go back to their hotel room and they’re not reading books, like Rory [McIlroy]. They’re playing video games or going straight on Facebook, or Instagram, or TikTok. What we’re seeing is, overall, a lot of kids with a really hard time concentrating and who seem to be more affected than ever by what people think about them. That’s a problem when you get on the golf course. When you play golf, you have to know 100% who you are. You have to or you cannot possibly expect to play your best.

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“You know, my neighbour runs a company and he gets these kids who’ll come in straight out of university, work for two years and then go to him and complain that he hasn’t made them a senior vice-president yet. Everybody I speak to tells me the same thing. There’s a depth of entitlement, a woe-is-me, this-isn’t-fair attitude in a lot of young kids nowadays. That’s the opposite of Darwin. In a purely biological sense, success comes from how you adapt to stress but we’re creating a world where we don’t want our young people to have that. Believe me, that affects coaching way more than someone’s takeaway.”

It’s hard not to conclude that it’s because of his father’s impecunious upbringing that Foley bristles at other people’s vacuity.

“I was really lucky, super-fortunate, to be born into the family that I was,” he says. “My dad didn’t force my brother and I into anything. If he ever pushed us, it was towards reading, education and kindness. I’ve never seen him have a smile or a frown based on how I performed at anything I chose to do. He gave me opportunities but he  never gave me anything, if that makes sense? That’s the trick to being a parent, right?

“I’ve tried to give my sons those same opportunities. They’ve been into skateboarding, surfing, wakeboarding, football, basketball and all that, and then, when they’re done with it, I’m left with all this shit in my garage that they don’t want anymore. But I wouldn’t trade any of it for them having those opportunities and experiences.”

Foley’s parents still live in Canada but spend their winters in Florida where they’re seldom not on the golf course.

“Golf’s been really the love of their lives,” he smiles. “Even to this day, my dad’s 80 and my mum’s 76, and they’ll come down to Orlando on November 1, stay until April 1, and they probably play at least 54 holes a week. At 80, my dad just started breaking 80.

“But neither of them will let me give them a lesson. Well, I mean, my mum will come to see me under the pretence of getting a lesson but it’s mostly just to check in and see how I’m doing. Dad won’t let me teach him. The running joke among his friends is that it’s amazing how he swings considering who his son is.”

That’s Glaswegians for you. 

Proud. 

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