DORAL, Fla. -- Around Orange County National, a sprawling facility on the outskirts of golf-happy Orlando, Sean Foley has picked up a nickname among his PGA Tour pupils and the club regulars who frequent the place.
If ever there was a spot-on fit for an alternate tag, this is it.
"Around OCN," PGA Tour veteran Greg Owen said, "we call him the Dalai Lama."
|Sean Foley had an idea he wanted to be involved in golf instruction when he was 13 years old.|
Even in the here-today, gone-tomorrow business of swing gurus, the glib Canadian overnight has become perhaps the hottest coaching property around, an analyst to both rising stars and seasoned veterans. A little more than three years ago, he was an outspoken, slightly heretical teacher with no prominent clients who enjoyed questioning the stagnant status quo associated with teaching the golf swing.
Now you should hear some of the ear-catching names he weaves into casual conversation. No, not Hunter Mahan, Sean O'Hair, Stephen Ames or Justin Rose, a few of the tour players he schools.
We're talking about Carl Jung, Buddha, Albert Einstein, Aristotle, Confucius and Abraham Lincoln. Foley sprinkles his conversations with quotations from iconic deep-thinkers like some of us drop in lines from Caddyshack. Forget the funny deathbed line from the movie -- Foley, 35, seems to be working on gaining eternal consciousness right now, which is part of his appeal to his pupils.
It's not much of a stretch to say that Foley is the most cerebral guy associated with the tour, which comes in handy when he's trying to get through to his increasingly productive clients, who over the years have endured every coaching cliché in the book.
"He does a great job teaching every one of us differently," said Mahan, who won in Phoenix two weeks ago. "It's very interesting how he can tell us something one week and then tell us something different, but it's pretty much the same thing. I think that's the sign of a great teacher is when he can adjust what he says but still get you to do the same thing."
Clarity has never been an issue with Foley, who moved to the States in mid-2006 with a roster that included exactly zero PGA Tour players, to open a junior golf academy at OCN. When he was 10, his dad took him to a practice range.
"I remember hitting one 3-wood well, and that was it," he said. "On that one 3-wood, I basically decided the rest of my life, I think."
When he was 13, he narrowed the focus after he attended the Canadian Open and saw David Leadbetter and Butch Harmon working on the range with their clients. Foley was more fascinated with watching the teachers than the golf tournament itself.
"I thought that was the coolest thing," he said.
Right then, he effectively became the youngest swing apprentice in history. Many coaches are former, and often failed, professionals. Foley honed in on the coaching thing and devoured every piece of information he could get his hands on, sifting through the theories and discarding stuff he thought was pointless. That in itself is hardly unusual, since he possesses one of the most inquisitive minds in the game.
"He must read about 300 or 400 books a year," Ames said. "And some of it is weird s---."
It's more like parts of 50 or 60, Foley said, but still. In the bio of most tour players, the heading of "last book read" could also read "only book read." Foley always has copies of Time, Newsweek and the Economist in his airline carry-on bag, just to keep track of current events beyond the narrow pale of the tour.
"He is scary bright," said Ames, who freely admits to whiffing on some of the psychological sidework that Foley often mixes in with his lessons.
Over lunch recently, Foley quoted Plato, Lincoln and this killer from Confucius: "The key to teaching is to make yourself obsolete to the student."
Or this one from Aristotle: "Contemplation is the highest form of activity."
Talk about swing thoughts.
Sometimes, Foley will drop some brain-searing quote on his crew as they head off to play, just to give them something to occupy their minds a bit while under pressure. Stuff like, "Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional."
"He can definitely go on tangents of who knows what," Mahan laughed. "He's a very smart guy, so we have good conversations and it's just fun talking to him."
Mahan jumped on board with Foley two years ago, after Ames and O'Hair.
"When you see a [fellow player] who is pretty consistent and his swing looks good and he hits it solid, it's hard not to pay attention to that," Mahan said.
Unlike Leadbetter or Harmon, who have become multinational corporations in themselves with books, DVDs and marketing savvy, Foley is ridiculously old school. He not only doesn't have a website, other than some brief information posted on the Core Golf Junior Academy site, he doesn't even have business cards.
"It's never been about 'being that guy,'" Foley said. "As Einstein said, ‘I'm not smarter than anyone else. I just stick with a problem longer.'"
Trust us, this guy loves a good mystery, not to mention the hunt for mythical mastery. He has been asking questions, pointing a finger at authority figures and stubbornly plowing ahead looking for answers, and not just in golf, since he was a kid.
"We're all stealing from Newton, anyway," he laughed. He means Isaac, not Jack. The proverbial apple of enlightenment fell on his head in college, when he received a scholarship to Tennessee State, a historically black school. He was one of five white kids in his dormitory.
"I had been in this bubble my whole life," he said. "It really taught me to communicate. I started to become really radical in school."
He began to love rap music -- the guy can quote obscure lyrics to hip-hop songs like he can spit out head-scratching philosophy -- and studied the Koran, Buddhism and the Bible. The inquisitive tend to pose questions.
"In high school, I had a lot of problems," he said. "I questioned a lot of teachers, a lot of the policies. I think that's helped me. I don't think there's any 'one best way' to do it out here."
That might include his way, because it took a huge leap of faith for Foley and his wife to make the dive into the professional coaching pool. He had coached in Canada for several years, occasionally working other jobs in the winter to help pay the bills, and gradually had established a reputation as one of the country's bright young minds. In mid-2006, when the Core Golf school was getting off the ground, the Foleys agreed to take a flier and move to Orlando. Eventually, he hoped to attract some tour pupils.
"If you want to fish, go where the fish are," he said.
Within days after they arrived in Florida, Ames, a fellow Canuck who knew Foley mostly by reputation, called on the phone and said: "I am coming down. I will give you three days."
It was the opportunity he'd wanted all his life, and since Foley was in his car when he took the call, he nearly drove into a ditch. A few days later, Foley watched Ames, who had been experiencing back trouble and had been referred to Foley by a chiropractor, hit balls for a few minutes. Foley recalls that moment both with fondness and a sense of sheer terror.
"He's hitting balls and doing so many things that are not correct, but he's hitting it better than anybody I have ever seen," Foley laughed. "I thought, 'Oh, crap.'"
Eventually, Foley put Ames into better body positions that placed less stress on his back, and Ames has continued to win and contend, well into his mid-40s. If there's one nuance that separates Foley from some other instructors, it's that he's surely not a template guy who espouses one style for all. Well, that and his ability to communicate ideas in thought-provoking fashion.
O'Hair joined the roster in mid-2008, followed by Mahan, Rose, Owen and Parker McLachlin, who won in Reno two years ago. So in the short span of 3½ years, he has amassed one of the biggest client lists in the game.
"He tells it like it is," said Owen, who reclaimed his tour card last year. "I really like that about him. I'm really happy with him. I just hope he sticks with me."
Foley aspires to be around for the long haul and seems born for this gig. As noted philosopher Ty Webb once said, "A flute with no holes is not a flute. A donut with no hole is a Danish."
I have no idea what that means.
As for Foley, he might be something of a square peg at times with his deep-thinking notions in a fairly shallow pool, but he's exactly where he always wanted to be -- or at minimum, he's on the way there.
"Abe Lincoln once said, 'I walk slowly, but I never walk backward,'" Foley said, laughing.