Humble, self-effacing Foley dishes at Fitness Summit

Sean Foley talks with Tiger Woods at the 2010 PGA Championship.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Question: What’s the one phrase you’ll never hear from most golf instructors?

Answer: “I don’t know.”

Too many golf instructors talk as if they know it all. Their mouths are perpetual motion machines.

And then there’s Sean Foley. Despite the fact he teaches the world’s most recognizable golfer, Tiger Woods, Foley might be the most humble, self-effacing instructor in golf.

Sure, sometimes Foley gets so enthusiastic that he transforms a practice range into an outdoor amphitheater, waving his arms like a symphony conductor high on Mozart. At heart, though, Foley is thoughtful, introspective and intellectual - a philosopher in golf clothing.

“You can’t learn if you talk all the time,” Foley said Thursday at the World Golf Fitness Summit, being held here at the JW Marriott Grande Lakes. “It’s important to listen.”

It’s important to be fashionable, too, and a tattoo is visible on Foley’s upper left arm as he gestures.

Foley appeared for an hour on the main stage with fitness instructor Craig Davies. The two often work together as they counsel some of the best golfers on the planet, including Woods, Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose.

Woods was not mentioned by name during the hour, although Foley addressed the subject of his high-profile pupil as he answered questions after the formal presentation was completed.

When asked why Woods doesn’t go back to the Scotty Cameron Newport 2 putter that he used for so many years, Foley said candidly, “I look to the divorce, not the putter. There’s a blip on his radar. He’s rebuilding himself.”

And that was that. There was no more Tiger talk, although who’s to say Woods doesn’t fit into some of Foley’s esoteric categories.

The last time Foley appeared at the Golf Fitness Summit, he referenced Socrates, Plato, Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Newtonian physics. This time, though, he settled for Copernicus, the 16th-century mathematician and astronomer.

“There is a lot to be learned from great people,” Foley said.

“And great golfers,” he might have added.

Foley is slow to take credit for the success of his pupils. “When people tell me I have six wins (on the PGA Tour) this year,” he said, “I say, ‘No, I haven’t won since the 1989 junior club championship. I was awesome that day.’

“This year, I didn’t hit one shot (on Tour).”

And then he reminded his listeners that “when I started working with Hunter (Mahan), he already was ranked 12th in total ballstriking. Really it’s ridiculous how good he is as a ballstriker.”

Foley followed by launching into a no-holds-barred examination of Mahan, his ballstriker supreme, along with the crucial role played by Davies.

“About 10 years ago ... I met Craig,” he said. “I had never seen anything like that before (flexibility testing and movement assessment). It made me realize how wrong I had been (in his teaching). Yet I was really excited (by the possibility of learning and growing as a golf instructor).”

Under Foley, Mahan changed his setup by adopting what we might call the Foley tilt: more hip hinge in the setup position, more overall tilt, more weight on the balls of his feet. With his old setup, Foley explained, Mahan could easily over-turn on the backswing or over-rotate on the throughswing.

That same Foley tilt, of course, can be seen in the address positions of Woods and Rose. Foley is seeking a “more efficient” swing for his players. Over and over, Foley preaches proper setup and ball position.

“Hunter is much more balanced now,” said Davies, who prescribes personal exercise and training programs for all of his golfers. “His hips are more square to the target; his shoulders are more square to the ball. There is no excessive right-side bend. He is using his left side better.”

Foley, always the straight shooter, reserves the right to be honest.

“When I first saw Hunter, he (Mahan) struggled from 50 to 110 yards; he struggled out of the rough; he struggled out of fairway bunkers,” said Foley, outlining his student’s faults after first labeling him one of the best ballstrikers in golf and calling him “probably the greatest stop-shot player I’ve ever seen.”

Foley’s status as a star teacher allows him to talk like this. He went further, discussing the “love” between instructors and players and declaring, “I can hug 'em in the morning and tell you what they’re gonna shoot. I wish I couldn’t. I could fly to London and make some money (with legal betting).”

It’s easy to imagine his response to the betting scenario: “I don’t deserve that million-dollar bet I just won. My player did all the work. I’m just the coach. And the teacher. And the motivator. And the philosopher.”

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