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Sunday, March 25, 2012
Tiger gets first win with Sean Foley

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

ORLANDO -- At the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, Tiger Woods began working with Sean Foley, a then 35-year-old Toronto native with the mind of a physicist. Tiger had been without a swing instructor since that May when Hank Haney resigned after six years from the most visible job in golf instruction. Since coming back at the 2010 Masters after a five-month hiatus from the game related to his extramarital affairs, the 14-time major winner had yearned for a new golf swing. So much had changed in Woods' life and the most fundamental thing to his identity was his golf swing, which would have to change, too. That was about the only thing that he could change.

Woods is a perfectionist. Shortly after winning the 1997 Masters by 12 shots, Butch Harmon helped him build a new swing that would yield one of the greatest stretches of golf in history. But through those stellar years, he battled knee problems. Haney's one-plane golf swing would help take some of the pressure off that left knee.

By 2009, after Tiger had reconstructive knee surgery following his miraculous win at the '08 U.S. Open with a torn ACL and multiple stress fractures, he said his knee was pain-free for the first time in 10 years and that he could hit shots without making compensations in his swing. That year with Haney as his instructor, Tiger would have seven worldwide wins.

But then Tiger's personal life unraveled on that fateful 2009 Thanksgiving night outside his home in Windermere, Fla. When he returned to golf, there was pressure to win and much of the blame for his inability to close out tournaments fell on Haney, who no longer could communicate with his once-prized pupil.

Now Foley was the guy charged with resurrecting Tiger's swing.

"Sometimes, if you look at my career, I've definitely taken pretty major steps backward in order to go forward," Tiger said at Whistling Straits. "When I worked with Butch when we tore down the swing in '97, I won one tournament in two years before I came right, but then I had a nice little run after that.

"So it's a matter of believing in what I'm doing is right and then honing it."

His 20 months with Foley speak to these comments that he made almost two years ago at the PGA. The Bay Hill win was their first official title together.

"This is our progression; we are heading in the same direction," Tiger said on Sunday afternoon of his relationship with Foley.

Yet Foley is Tiger's third teacher in his 16 years as a pro. The 72-time PGA Tour winner is now on his third caddie. Those numbers might not sound alarming for a sport in which players routinely dispense with the trainers, swing instructors and mental coaches as soon as they start missing cuts, but so far, most of Tiger's relationships with his teacher's and caddies haven't ended well.

This week, Rick Smith made a point of telling me that despite Phil Mickelson firing him as his coach at '06 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, they are still the closest of friends. Tiger has had very public spats with former caddie Steve Williams and Haney, whose tell-all book about their relationship comes out Tuesday.

My hope is that Tiger and Foley can have a long and fruitful relationship, because Tiger's history has shown that for good or bad, his fortunes change with his swing instructor. How long will he stay committed to Foley's approach? It's hard to say at this point. Early on when Foley took the job, I asked him if he could he work for Tiger if he didn't like him. He reaffirmed his fondness for his boss on Saturday. "He's a really good guy," he told me.

Foley and Tiger haven't been through a truly difficult patch that could test their working relationship. But from what I can tell, they are bonded by their shared love of the golf swing. They also are very close in age  Tiger is 36, Foley is 38 -- which gives them a natural familiarity with each other.

Yet you know you're living in the age of self-help books and gurus of every kind when a swing instructor can become as nearly famous as his student. On Saturday, I walked a part of the front nine at Bay Hill with Foley. On one hole, a dozen fans must have stopped him to ask for photographs.

Even the most diehard golf fan probably couldn't tell you who taught Jack Nicklaus, the man that Tiger chases for the career major wins record.

In the end, Tiger likes where Foley is taking his game. Sure, he'll win with any teacher who is committed to his all-business attitude and wonkiness. On Sunday night, Tiger continued to discuss his delight at being able to again hit the ball as far as the longest hitters on tour. He loves his traj -- his shorthand for trajectory -- on his irons. He's healthy enough to practice and he has all the shots. Still, he struggled during the week in spots with his distance control and ability to hit fades into right pins.

But as Tiger warns, he's a work in progress: a mantra that he will probably always hold as long as he plays pro golf. Yet Haney and Williams, most notably, have been casualties of that tireless mindset for perfection and personal changes in his life. But Tiger was very successful with them, and he'll be great with Foley and Joe LaCava as his caddie. With Augusta on his mind, Tiger has as good a team as he's ever had.

Change is good. But for now Tiger should find a way to comb his restlessness about perfection and enjoy this growth with this new teacher, who might not ever take him to some of his past glories, but he could give him the assurance in his game to conquer whatever lies ahead.

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.