It’s still anyone’s guess as to when Tiger Woods will return to PGA Tour competition, but one thing is certain: He’ll be under the tutelage of a different swing coach.
Battered and beaten by a season of poor health and poorer play, Woods, 38, announced on his website Monday that he has parted ways with swing instructor Sean Foley, with whom he had worked since the summer of 2010.
“I’d like to thank Sean for his help as my coach and for his friendship,” Woods said in a statement on his website. “Sean is one of the outstanding coaches in golf today, and I know he will continue to be successful with the players working with him. With my next tournament not until my World Challenge event at Isleworth in Orlando (an unofficial tournament Dec. 4-7), this is the right time to end our professional relationship.”
A message left with Foley was not immediately returned. His agent, Chris Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group, released a statement from the instructor: “My time spent with Tiger is one of the highlights of my career so far, and I am appreciative of the many experiences we shared together. It was a lifelong ambition of mine to teach the best player of all time in our sport. I am both grateful for the things we had the opportunity to learn from one another, as well as the enduring friendship we have built. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him.”
The news came one day after Foley had the chance to bask in the glow of a FedEx Cup playoff victory at The Barclays by Hunter Mahan, with whom he has worked for years. Coming on top of the robust season enjoyed by another Foley student, Justin Rose (a victory among seven top 10s), and it’s understandable why Butch Harmon’s first reaction when he heard the news was filled with perspective.
“I wouldn’t feel sorry for Sean Foley,” Harmon said. “He’s working with some great players who are doing great things.”
Rose is ranked fifth in the world, Mahan 19th.
Yet it was worth a double-take to look at the website, seanfoleydvd.com, where it is emblazoned with this headline: “Once a generation everything changes. Own the future.”
Not quite true, at least not in the case of the game’s most iconic player. In the Tiger Woods Generation, things change at least three times – when it comes to swing coaches, that is. As a teenager, Woods worked with Harmon, through a dominating amateur career and until summer 2002, when they split after Woods won eight major championships.
Woods at that time hired Hank Haney, who oversaw the golfer’s swing through spring 2010 – a period in which they won six majors – when he quit in the aftermath of a personal-life crisis that had kept the world’s best player on the sidelines for months.
When Woods returned to the Tour in summer 2010, he confirmed long-whispered reports that Foley was his swing coach. This relationship of four-plus years was been a tumultuous one in many respects, not only because Woods went winless in 2010 and 2011, but also because of a series of injuries that slowed the once-dominating golfer.
Though Woods won eight of 35 PGA Tour tournaments under Foley’s guidance in 2012-13, none was a major championship. With every injury, every stint on the DL, every bad tournament and every failure at the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship, the scrutiny intensified. Even Harmon, who refuses to delve into the personal and petty aspects of the business, couldn’t understand the microscopic treatment.
In the past, Harmon has said that of the three instructors with whom Woods has worked during his professional career, Foley had the toughest job. That’s because he has had to teach Woods around a series of health issues, most recently the March 31 microdiscectomy that sidelined him for three months. Many observers thought the recovery period would last four-to-six months and that Woods would miss the season’s final three major championships, but shockingly, he came back in late June for the Quicken Loans National, which benefits his foundation.
Woods missed the cut, then played poorly over the final three rounds of the Open Championship, withdrew with back pain in Round 4 of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and missed the cut at the PGA Championship. In 11 competitive rounds since returning from back surgery, Woods went 20 over par, which led a business associate to question openly whether Woods was getting good advice or not listening to his advisers.
Therein prompts a question that appears pertinent to the student-teacher relationship Woods had with Foley. “It’s hard to say what was going on with them, because Sean has a good thing with Mahan and Rose,” said a swing coach who is out on Tour frequently. “Was Sean teaching stuff that was bad for Tiger? Or was Tiger not listening to what Sean was telling him?”
To know Woods is to believe the latter is possible. Part of what made him the incomparable force he was from 1997 to 2009 and has put him in position to surpass Sam Snead’s record for career wins on the PGA Tour (82; Woods is at 79) and Jack Nicklaus’ mark for professional majors (18; Woods is at 14) is the personality trait that defines him. Mentally strong and ferociously determined, he is very stubborn and not always willing to do what others think is in his best interest. Yet there is the way Foley teaches – and his website is prominent with his teaching tenets, such as philosophy, physics, biomechanics and geometry – that leads observers to wonder whether Woods finally has tired of attempting to follow such a mechanical swing.
Clearly, Woods’ swing has become shorter in the past few years, prompting criticism from other instructors. Peter Kostis has advocated that those with back issues – i.e., Woods – adopt a swing that promotes long, fluid motion (think Sam Snead or Fred Couples or Tom Watson) that is based on technique and timing, not on a fierce coil that ignites an “explosiveness,” which has become one of Woods’ favorite words.
But it’s far too cavalier an indictment to suggest Foley is guilty of pushing Woods in this way. True, Foley did make changes to Woods’ swing once they began working together in 2010, shifting the player’s stance to be more centered over the ball, with more weight on the left side. But an instructor reminded that Foley has had to work with Woods through the player’s injuries (knee, Achilles tendon, neck, back) and natural aging (let’s not forget, Woods will be 39 in December).
Woods’ swing is steeper than it was when he worked with Haney, and the motion he had when he worked with Harmon is not possible, not at this age, not after all the aches and pains.
So in many ways, it’s no surprise that Woods has announced the breakup. Even with the PGA Tour set to stage the second FedEx Cup playoff tournament – the Deutsche Bank Championship, which benefits the Tiger Woods Foundation – it’s likely that Woods will be out of reach of media questions and more free to continue his rehabilitation, which now will include the search for a new coach.
Who will it be?
Ah, let the rumor mill and scrutiny commence.