Commentary

Top players still flock to Sean Foley

Updated: September 12, 2013, 7:46 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- He made his usual morning rounds, visiting with his star clients Thursday morning on the Conway Farms driving range. There were the casual chats with Tiger Woods and Lee Westwood, the more hands-on discussions with Hunter Mahan and Justin Rose, and then Sean Foley was left to watch and wait for the first round of the BMW Championship to conclude.

That foursome of golfers represents some top names in the game, all ranked among the top 27 in the world, two in the top five. Rose won the U.S. Open this year. Woods has won five times this season and is the No. 1 golfer in the world. Another former No. 1, Luke Donald, recently sought Foley's teaching expertise because he liked what he saw from other players.

So why, again, is Foley the target of so much criticism?

Perhaps it just comes with the job, especially as it relates to Woods, whose success and failures are analyzed up and down, inside and out. Woods' every shot, and every round, is scrutinized like no other, as will his 5-under-par 66 on Thursday that left him 3 shots behind 18-hole leader Brandt Snedeker.

More and more have come around to Foley, 39, a Canada-born instructor who first rose to prominence working with Stephen Ames and later with Sean O'Hair, Mahan and Rose. It was Foley's work with the latter three, especially, that got Woods' attention, and they began a teacher-student relationship three years ago that has seen Woods dip to his worst depths as a pro and rise again.

Of course, Woods has not won a major championship under Foley, he tends to hit wayward drives, and at age 37, his consistency is not what it once was.

Anyone who follows Woods is aware of the constant commentary. It ratcheted up again last week when former PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee -- a frequent critic of Woods' golf swing, not his golf -- described Woods as being "overcoached" while yearning for the days of Butch Harmon, whom Woods left more than 11 years ago.

"You know his driver might as well be a dead mackerel wrapped in newspapers at the moment," Chamblee, an analyst for the Golf Channel, said during a media conference call. "It's just awful watching him hit that golf club, just awful."

Foley is loath to fight back, only grudgingly and carefully willing to discuss his role with Woods and all that goes into the job. He is aware that Chamblee is a respected analyst and that people form opinions based on what they observe. He is also aware that his list of critics has dwindled as more and more top players have come to play well under his guidance.

But -- much like his predecessor in the coaching role with Woods, Hank Haney -- Foley points to the results.

"I haven't maybe got him hitting it as I know he can," Foley said. "That said, he's still 17th in ball-striking [which measures a player's driving accuracy, distance and greens in regulation]. The condemnation far outweighs the reality."

Woods might not get the driver in play as often as he would like -- which, in truth, has been an issue throughout his career -- but he leads the PGA Tour in scoring, the ultimate stat. While his driving accuracy ranks just 74th, it is better than it was four years ago (86th) when he won six times on the PGA Tour.

Going back to 2002, the last year Woods worked with Harmon (and captured two major titles), Tiger was 107th in driving accuracy, even though he hit more fairways than he does now.

The difference today is that Woods does not hit as many greens in regulation. He's slipped to 25th on the PGA Tour, and he was No. 1 in 2002 and 16th in 2009.

Of course, stats, especially in golf, can be misleading. Oftentimes it is the circumstances under which various events occur, and Woods' inability to produce in the majors remains a source of consternation. To Chamblee's point, Woods makes some poor swings, especially with the driver. That is magnified in the biggest tournaments.

Chamblee is far from the only one to criticize Woods, which by extension leads to Foley, who believes too much is made of his role, both good and bad. Sort of like coaches in team sports who take too much of the blame or glory, Foley said there is only so much an instructor can do.

"I don't tell them how to play, and I don't really believe that any coach out here has a lot to do with whether a guy wins or loses," Foley said. "I can't do what Phil Jackson did. I can't do what Bill Parcells did. I can't grab a guy coming off the green and say, 'Chin up, chest out, life is good, bud.' So it's not really coaching. We don't shift the outcome at all. We don't have anything to do with decision-making, the clubs they pick, anything."

But Foley and other coaches do have a lot to do with how a player swings the club, which ultimately is what people notice.

That is why Westwood, for years known as one of the game's top ball-strikers, sought Foley earlier in 2013. He told the instructor that he really liked what he had done with Woods' ball flight.

Recently, Donald approached Foley, who recommended Chuck Cook because his own schedule was too busy.

"I was very impressed with Sean's guys and how they strike the ball," said Donald, who said a "light went off" when he played with Rose during the final round of the U.S. Open. "Hunter, Tiger obviously, Justin -- those guys hit a lot of quality shots."

And Woods' playing partners consistently marvel at his work.

Snedeker, when Woods won the Players Championship earlier this year: "From what I saw, he was flushing it and was in control of every part of his game. He's playing incredible golf right now. As players, we can tell when a guy is flushing it all the time. He has an innate ability to flush it all the time."

Graeme McDowell, after playing with Woods for the first two rounds of the Open Championship: "He was very, very impressive the last two days. Iron play, the flight control that he has in his irons ... he just hits the shot that you're supposed to hit at all times. I'm not sure there's a better iron player in the world."

Two years ago, Woods wasn't eligible for the FedEx Cup playoffs, having missed most of the summer due to injury. That setback cost him time to work on his swing and saw his world ranking plummet to 58th in the fall.

Now he is No. 1 over Adam Scott by a wide margin and has eight worldwide victories in the past two years.

It is hard to argue with that, but inevitably where Woods is concerned, debate will follow. And Foley knows all about it.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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