Ten years ago, on a day in early April, a dozen coaches were gathered inside the Glen Abbey academy in Oakville, Ont., for a golf instructors’ seminar. Situated near the 10th tee of the famed course, the room offered a panorama of the sloping fairway beyond. To start things off, participants were asked to introduce themselves and say a few words about their goals. When Foley’s turn arrived, he cleared his throat. “In 10 years’ time,” he said, “I want to be the swing coach to five of the top 50 ranked golfers in the world.”
Everyone burst into laughter. Although the 26-year-old Foley was a distinguished enough instructor of Canadian junior golfers, his resumé with PGA Tour professionals was non-existent. No one believed his cachet as a junior coach could translate into a job with an established tour player. And with only a handful of Canadians on the PGA Tour, what were the odds that one of Foley’s junior players would make it to the big leagues?
Well, nearly a decade later, no one is laughing. Not only can Foley boast of having coached four of the world’s top 50 players—his stable includes Canadian Stephen Ames, Memorial Tournament-winner Justin Rose, as well as Sean O’Hair and Hunter Mahan, who won the Bridgestone Invitational last weekend—but if the rumour mill is to be believed, he may be close to picking up his fifth, and perhaps best, player. The buzz around the practice range, echoed by golf writers such as Steve Elling of CBS Sports and Bob Harig of ESPN, is that Foley is at the top of the list of candidates to replace Hank Haney as Tiger Woods’s next swing coach. Woods hasn’t replaced Haney since they parted ways in May, and, for the most part, his game has floundered ever since. Most recently he shot an abysmal 18 over par at Bridgestone, in what CNN called the “worst four rounds of golf he’s ever played as a pro.”
In golf, as in all sports, a good nickname is a sign you’ve arrived. Craig Stadler, a.k.a. “the Walrus,” looks like the sea creature he’s named after. Steve Pate, known for his meltdowns on the course, is dubbed “the Volcano.” Foley has ended up with “the Lama,” a nod to his Buddhist-like calm and philosophical approach to coaching. “Your golf game is not who you are,” he has enigmatically told players who beat themselves up after a disappointing round. Part sports psychologist, part motivational coach, part swing instructor, he produces results. He rattles off the statistics: Ames was ranked 56th in the PGA world ranking system; after he started working with Foley he jumped to 23rd. O’Hair went from 70th to as high as 12th. Rose leapt from 100 to 33. At the same time, Foley’s job remains the subject of an ongoing debate in the golf world: is the profusion of swing coaches turning golfers into robots, robbing the sport of some of its charm and personality?
Foley had an unusual pathway to his trade. Unlike Dave Stockton and Butch Harmon, notable instructors who turned to coaching following their careers as professional players, Foley has no real competitive credentials. It’s something he never aspired to. Foley, who plays scratch golf, told Maclean’s he has always been obsessed more with the game’s physics and mechanics. “I’ve wanted to be a swing coach since I was 13 years old,” he said.
The fixation began with a trip to Glen Abbey with his parents to watch the Canadian Open as a teenager. “I saw David Leadbetter on the range coaching Nick Faldo,” he recalls. “And I was more interested in the coach than the player. I told my dad right there that being a golf instructor was what I wanted to do.”
Foley attended Tennessee State University on a golf scholarship and studied political science. He then honed his skills at John Jacobs Golf Academy (which has branches across the U.S.) and in 2000 joined Glen Abbey as an instructor, where he created the elite junior development program and became the much-loved coach of young Canadian golfers trying to play their way into university golf scholarships south of the border.
One of golf writer Robert Thompson’s favourite stories about Foley originates from golf pro Chris Neale, whom Foley was working for at Glen Abbey 10 years ago. It was the eve of the Canadian Open, and all of Neale’s staff had been instructed to stay away from the PGA Tour pros. “But Foley was like a kid before Christmas,” writes Thompson. When an employee walked into Neale’s office to complain about a problem, Neale immediately knew it was Foley. “Neale walked down to the range and found Foley sitting on an overturned range bucket directly in front of Davis Love III,” Thompson recalls. “The pair were talking very animatedly.” Love, a PGA veteran, turned to Neale. “This kid knows a lot about the golf swing,” he said. Neale nodded and sent Foley on his way.
Foley now commands up to US$350 an hour to sit on an overturned bucket and talk with the pros. (As a coach, he is paid by commission.) He owes some of his changed fortunes to a fortuitous encounter with PGA golfer Stephen Ames. Foley met the Trinidadian-born Canadian in 2005 at the Granite Golf Club in Stouffville, Ont., during the Stephen Ames Cup, a competition featuring junior players from Canada and Trinidad and Tobago. During coaching sessions, as Foley advised juniors on their swings, Ames observed. A year later, Foley learned what a strong impression he’d made on Ames.
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