Why firing Sean Foley would be the worst thing for Tiger Woods
At this point, I thought that we were done with the “What’s Wrong with Tiger Woods” stories. Surely, that horse has been bludgeoned to the point of no return over the last three years. As I wrote back in June, Woods is basically in a no-win situation at this point. The expectations are staggeringly high. If he doesn’t live up to them, he gets blasted. If he does, he was supposed to get there anyway.
This brings me to the story posted by Selena Roberts last week at her new venture, Roopstigo. Roberts of course is a respected investigative journalist, who’s most famous for working at Sports Illustrated and breaking the Alex Rodriguez steroid story in 2009. Roberts’ work has consistently appeared in Best Of lists and the top publications worldwide, so I was intrigued when I saw my Twitter feed light up with people giving praise to her latest piece about Woods. I’ve read it several times now, and not only does it seem off, it comes across in some spots as downright misinformed.
Let’s start at the beginning. The title of the piece, “How He Lost The Grip On Greatness: Tiger’s Money Trap”, infers that his financial situation is the reason Woods hasn’t played up to his lofty standards. To be honest, Roberts presents financial information that was previously unknown, and she should be commended for her research. The problem is that there’s nothing concrete that suggests any actual link between Woods’ finances and his results on the course. I’m not going to judge Woods on his financial situation, since I don’t think I’m qualified to do it. What I will do though is dispute the actual golf related material in the piece.
Roberts rightly posits that Woods is a bit of a recluse. Despite the fact that he needs to be a public figure based on his occupation and stature, he’s never been one that has wanted to be out in front. He’s preferred to live a life of privacy, as is his right. Roberts also correctly points out the need for Woods to be the best, whether that comes from his pursuit of breaking Jack Nicklaus’ record 18 major victories, or chasing down new best friend Rory McIlroy as the world’s current number one player. We all know that what drives Woods more than anything is his desire to be the best.
Where the piece begins to fall apart is the next paragraph, starting with a quote from Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. Chamblee mentions how Woods “lives like a billionaire”, before admitting that he has no idea how his finances play into his “struggles”. I’m really not sure why that quote was even used in the piece if Chamblee wasn’t going to link it to his performance on the course.
“In a dramatic shift from the dominance he enjoyed in the mid-2000’s, when he was ranked first or second in final round play, Woods was 32nd this year.”
Again, as I wrote in June, people need to get used to the idea that Woods regaining what he had is probably never going to happen. He’s going to be a good, and probably great player. But the dominant, world-beating Woods who dwarfed the competition isn’t coming back. Also, Woods seems to be the only athlete on the planet who gets legitimately compared to who he used to be, and people just seem to be okay with it. Do people really expect Kobe Bryant to be the same guy that he was when the Lakers were winning three titles in the early 2000’s? What about Ray Lewis and Ichiro? Even if we ignore team sports and focus on individual ones, no one is wondering what’s wrong with Roger Federer. People have come to grips with the fact that those guys, while still quality players in their own right, will never be the same, but Woods doesn’t get afforded the same luxury.
Chamblee continues by mentioning that Woods’ weekend scoring average is consistently higher than it is pre-cut. In this case, he’s right. If you go based on last year’s statistics, Woods’ scoring average on the weekend is about a stroke higher than it is before the cut. Chamblee also makes the assertion that this is all mental. Granted, Woods’ highest scores in final rounds all came at notable tournaments, including all four majors, but there are several good quality final rounds in his 2012 season as well. In fact, his two lowest rounds of the year, a 62 at the Honda Classic and a 63 at the CIMB Classic, both came in final rounds.
“Somewhere a long the way, he lost the joy. Now he looks like he does it because he’s good at it and that’s what he’s supposed to do. That’s part of what’s happening with Sean Foley.”
At this point in the analysis, Chamblee starts making assumptions. He’s assuming that Tiger doesn’t enjoy playing anymore. He’s assuming that the only reason why he’s playing is because he has to. On the course, Woods has always shown emotion. When he won at Bay Hill in March, his first legitimate PGA Tour win since the BMW Championship in September of 2009, Woods was beaming. The same thing happened at the Memorial in June and at the AT&T in July. Yeah, he’s upset when he plays poorly, but so is every other golfer. The amount of TV time that Woods gets magnifies the petulant behaviour that he exhibits. I’m not trying to justify the behaviour, but that’s a discussion for another day. Also, to say that Sean Foley, Woods’ coach since 2010, is responsible for an alleged lack of happiness inside Woods when he’s on the course is a little ridiculous.
Chamblee, discussing the work of Foley with Woods:
“Tiger is worse in every statistical category with few exceptions. He drives it shorter and hits fewer fairways. He hits fewer greens and he is a considerably worse putter. He is far more of a conservative golfer than he was and far more limited in his shot shaping. He is addicted to an idea now. He is over influenced by that idea. It’s literally at best corrupted but probably completely robbed him of his ability to create.”
Again, this depends on what we’re comparing Woods to. Woods’ injury history is well documented as well, and he’s made reference in recent weeks that he finally felt healthy again this season. Since it seems that Chamblee is discussing Woods’ time with Foley, let’s take a look at those numbers. Below are four graphs, outlining the four statistical categories that Chamblee mentions. Remember, Foley and Woods started working together in 2010. First, driving distance:
After a slight dip from 2010 to 2011, Woods’ average jumped back up almost four yards in 2012. So, if we’re discussing Foley’s work with Woods, Chamblee is incorrect in this case. Now again, the 300+ yard averages from the mid-2000’s do stand out, but that’s common for golfers in their early 30’s. To illustrate that point, take a look at the below graph with six of Woods’ contemporaries, all of whom have been considered at one point to be long hitters.
You’ll notice that the graph is very similar over the years, at least in the shape that each player has taken. Low start, followed by a big spike and a gradual decline. Woods is simply taking the same path that pretty much every other golfer has taken over the years, except that the distance is longer in his case. Woods has actually been fairly steady over the past five years in comparison to other players.
Woods’ accuracy off the tee has never been great, and it completely plunged in 2011 under Foley. This year, Woods rebounded nicely with an almost 15% increase. Now, a lot of this could be related to him taking 3-wood off the tee a little more this year instead of driver, but a 15% jump shouldn’t be ignored.
Greens In Regulation percentage:
Once again, if we’re comparing Woods to his success from the early-to-mid 2000’s, he is down in this category. However, if we’re just taking it from when Foley took over as Chamblee has made it seem, there was a steady improvement from 2010 to 2011, before a slight dip last year, despite moving up eight spots in the ranking across the PGA Tour. That goes to the theory that most players today are less pinpoint with their irons, and are more concerned about bombing the golf ball.
Strokes Gained Putting:
Strokes gained putting is a relatively new stat on the PGA Tour, with data only going back to 2004. As the name suggests, the stat tracks how may strokes were gained per round against the rest of the field. Woods took a nosedive in 2010 when working with Foley, but again, has seen steady improvement under Foley in the last two years.
Basically, the data shows that if we’re making fair comparisons with an allegedly healthy Woods, combined with him getting comfortable with Foley’s teaching, Chamblee’s criticisms are completely unfounded. Now, if we’re comparing him to what he was when he was in his early 30’s, then yes, he is a worse golfer. Again though, how fair is that? The success of golfers after the age of 35 is limited, so the fact that Tiger won three tournaments last year and could have won several others is a testament to how good he still is. Now, as it relates to Chamblee’s comments about Woods’ lack of ability to shape shots and create, Wayne Defrancesco does a much better job than I ever could at debunking that myth in the video below:
“If Tiger Woods fired Sean Foley, and never, ever spoke to Sean again, he would be a better golfer.”
Now again, this isn’t the first time that Chamblee has put it out there that Woods should fire Foley. Why Woods would even consider firing Foley after winning three times on the PGA Tour, and earning over $6 million last season is beyond me. Once again, Chamblee is looking at what Woods was instead of what he is. If Woods fired Foley, it would mean starting again with a new coach, his third in four years. Last year demonstrated that Woods can still be one of the best golfers in the world, capable of winning any tournament in the world. Last year also showed us that he’s starting to get used to Foley’s teaching.
Roberts acknowledges that Foley isn’t the only variable, mentioning that the players today, like McIlroy, have started to pass Woods thanks to his injury trouble. Combine that with the amount of mileage on his body, and the fact that, you know, golf is pretty difficult at times, and you have reasons that make up a believable argument as to why Woods hasn’t been the dominant player that he was ten years ago. Of course, these factors are just mentioned quickly and tossed aside. Roberts than presents a graph, showing Woods’ final round scoring average from 1996 to 2012, which again fits her narrative for the piece, but doesn’t do anything to prove that his dip in success is related to anything other than the above factors.
The last page of the piece explores the details of Woods’ finances, including the point that Woods owes ex-wife Elin Nordegren $54.5 million before January of 2016. Again, I’m not going to delve too much into that, but the fact that Woods made roughly $70 million last year alone leads one to believe that paying that off wouldn’t be a huge deal, even if his play and sponsorships take a bit of a hit.
Chamblee continues, discussing Woods’ pursuit of Nicklaus’ major record:
“There have been three wins in majors in the last 56, by people over the age of 40. So his window is over the next 12 majors realistically. Can he win four of the next 12? He’ll contend – there’s no question that he’s a good player – but he’s got so many weaknesses that rob him of critical shots now as compared to the past. So, no, I don’t think he’ll get to 18 or 19. No, I don’t.”
Chamblee is correct in describing the likely window for Woods, but then he loses the plot again. He mentions his weaknesses compared to previous years, but players who win three tournaments in a year against good fields and are at or near the top of several statistical categories, do not have “many weaknesses.” Woods might get to 19 majors, and he might not. Frankly, it’s stupid to suggest that he will, but it’s also ridiculous to suggest that he can’t.
Should Tiger Woods fire Sean Foley? In Brandel Chamblee’s mind, the answer is obviously that he should. Unfortunately, Chamblee appears to be overlooking the facts. Nobody who follows the game closely would be surprised if Tiger Woods won at least one major next season. Firing Foley and starting over with someone else would probably guarantee that Woods doesn’t win a major for at least another year, and considering Woods’ age, that doesn’t seem like the brightest idea if he has aspirations of catching Nicklaus.
For what it’s worth, Woods has never entertained the idea of firing Foley, at least publicly. Patience has never been Woods’ best virtue, but it seems like in this case, he’d be best served to ignore Chamblee like he has in the past. He won’t ever be the same player again, but he’s never been closer to getting most of it back, and firing Foley at this stage would be a backward step.