When Tiger Woods and Hank Haney, his previous coach of six years, parted company, Tiger decided that he was going to go it alone. He didn’t say this, but being the best golfer on the planet right now and probably the best who ever played the game, this seemed like a very reasonable decision. What more could anybody teach him about the golf swing?
Well, at that level, not much, if anything. But what you learn over time in trying to get better at the game is that there is a body of knowledge about what makes for an effective golf swing—much of it contradictory and confusing—that is fairly easy to assimilate mentally. Just not so much physically.
So as you progress, it becomes less and less important to know “what to do,” and more and more important to know “what you do.” As my former golf school partner, Fred Shoemaker, used to say, “The reason you continue to make mistakes in your golf swing is because you don’t know that you make them.” In other words, you can’t feel them. And in my experience, even with the shutter speed set at 1/10,000th slow motion on my video camera, sometimes you can’t immediately see them either. Hence the value of a good coach.
There is a body of work that believes in the innate, majestic talent of the human body and that all that’s necessary is to provide a non-instructional physical experience that cues the body by proxy. From there, explain the objective and then let the natural machine solve the problem of going from proxy to performance though trial and error. My hero in that regard is Tim Gallwey: he goes a step further by taking the egoic mind out of the equation too. I wrote about it in “‘Know How’ versus ‘Mind How.’”
But there comes a point where you need an intelligent mirror to get to the next level. You need a coach who has all of the information in his head, but is able to give it to you in learnable coaching…as opposed to, “Do this…and now do that…and now do this…and that..and this…and, whatever you do, make sure you keep your left arm straight.” Learnable coaching is more in the vein of providing objectives to accomplish, but all of the information that supports it remains behind the curtain unless pieces of it need to be trotted out to reinforce a point.
Which brings me to Tiger’s new coach, Sean Foley. He came to Tiger’s attention because Foley also coached Tiger’s friends, Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan, two rising Tour stars. He liked what Foley had them doing and I’m guessing that the catalyst for Tiger was that it didn’t take too long working by himself to realize that he needed the support of an intelligent mirror.
Brian Wacker, at PGATOUR.COM, was able to get a great interview with Foley, one of only six out of the 2,500 requests since August. I was struck by Foley’s humility, how grounded he was and how he approached his coaching from a minimalist, respectful place.
On why Tiger decided to work with Foley:
…he liked what [O’Hair and Mahan] were doing. Trying to understand what they were doing was a different variation from what he was trying to do—different teachers have different philosophies.
On just how much influence he has in the relationship:
…The issue, as I see it, is the amount of credit coaches take for players playing well. The fact is [the players] have to hit 280 shots under fear and under duress. I don’t have to do any of that. My addition to what they’re doing is far more minimal than media people make it…
On his approach:
More than anything, it’s a minimalist approach. I remember reading in Mike Hebron’s book, “The Art and Zen of Learning Golf,” it says there are things that you cause to happen and things that you allow to happen. When you start trying to cause what’s already allowed to happen, you’re going to run into problems…
On his minimalism:
…It’s an hour and a half, I’ll go there, hang out, make sure everything’s on the right track and if he has any questions I answer them. Then I have the ability to sit behind the Mozart of golf and sit there and watch it.
And on his respect for Tiger’s talent:
…I knew how good he was, but I never had ability to stand there and watch it. And to watch him hit 290-yard 3-woods to back pins on par-5s and have the ball land soft, every so often I go ‘Whoa, that’s unbelievable.’ And that’s something that no teacher would ever be responsible for.
Foley also reads philosophy, is a very idealistic man and a man who comfortably talks about “being.”
It’s well worth the time to read the whole interview.