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Tiger Woods works with golf instructor Sean Foley on the practice ground prior to the start of the third round of the PGA Championship on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits on Aug. 14, 2010, in Kohler, Wisc. (Chris Graythen/Chris Graythen / Getty Images)
Tiger Woods works with golf instructor Sean Foley on the practice ground prior to the start of the third round of the PGA Championship on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits on Aug. 14, 2010, in Kohler, Wisc. (Chris Graythen/Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

Straighten out your golf swing with coach Sean Foley Add to ...

In the world golf, no instructor is as in demand as Canada's Sean Foley. With a roster of clients that includes fellow Canuck Stephen Ames as well as other PGA Tour professionals Hunter Mahan and Tiger Woods, Mr. Foley has become the most prominent swing coach on tour.

Mr. Foley calls working with Mr. Woods "a career Mount Everest," the pinnacle for anyone in his profession. The Toronto-born Mr. Foley has reached that pinnacle earlier than most - he's only 36 - thanks to an uncanny knowledge of swing mechanics coupled with a philosophical perspective on the game and life. (On the green and off, he quotes everyone from Aristotle to Gandhi.)

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"What makes me, me - not unique, not better than any one else - is just that I care about the human being, and I realize that being No. 1 in the world as perceived by everyone is really the best thing in the world, but you can be that and be miserable," he says.

It's an approach that has made clients into devotees. After former client Sean O'Hair won the Quail Hollow Classic in 2009 under Mr. Foley's tutelage, he told reporters that Mr. Foley hadn't just changed his swing, he had changed his life.

But as Mr. Foley knows, you can talk about Aristotle all you want, it's results that matter. Mr. Woods, his star pupil, is struggling right now, and rebuilding his game will take time, he says. He's beginning to understand Mr. Woods, "what he can do and what he can't do, and what his patterns are, and what he wants to do."

Mr. Foley is also helping golfers at the other end of the spectrum, with an instructional DVD called The Next Generation and as a contributor to Golf Digest magazine.Every golfer may be different, but most weekend hackers make the same mistakes, he says. In the hopes of shaving strokes off our handicap and maybe, just maybe, beating our dads out on the links this weekend, we asked Mr. Foley to give us some pointers.

WALKING THROUGH A SHOT

The vast majority of amateur golfers end up with their weight on their right side when they hit the ball (if they're right-handed). Which is why the vast majority of golfers miss hit shots.

Instead,Mr. Foley says, imagine that as you are set up over the ball, there is a pole that runs from the middle of your head down your spine all the way to the ground. That pole is your axis.

"The reason that people miss hit shots so much, in general terms, is because that axis is behind the ball," he says. "And if that axis is behind the ball, then the contact point is behind the ball."

Golf legend Ben Hogan used a beautifully simple technique to ensure balls are hit flush, one that Foley has also adopted and details in his instructional video: walking through the shot instead of staying planted on your feet after your follow through.

Walking through the shot and keeping that lateral movement through the golf ball helps ensure that you get through to your left side and that the shaft is ahead of the club head.

KNOW THE RANGE OF YOUR POSSIBILITIES

Golfers' most common mistake is what Mr. Foley calls underpreparation and overexpectation. "It goes all the way to the highest level of golf," he says.

You may want to knock down pars - who doesn't? - but scoring well depends on practice. And setting up unreasonable goals only leads to playing angry, and that doesn't help your handicap.

"People expect way too much of themselves but they don't prepare," Mr. Foley says. That just leads to frustration. Don't beat yourself up, golf is supposed to be fun. Be realistic about the number you expect to shoot based on how much you've actually practised lately and enjoy your round.

WORK YOUR SHORT GAME

Many golfers get to within 50 yards or so of the green in just two, maybe three shots. But then it takes another three or four or - get ready to throw your clubs into the lake - five shots to get the ball into the cup.Taking out the driver and blasting it is fun, but if you want to reduce your score, leave the big stick in your bag and pull out some wedges. Developing a solid short game is the key to lowering your scores, Mr. Foley says.

"People don't realize that 70 per cent of your strokes, regardless of your level, come from 110 yards in [from the green] That's the same for Hunter Mahan as it is for you. …

"I can't tell people enough of how important it is to practise around the green," Mr. Foley says.

GET DOWN

It's maybe the most counterintuitive part of golf, one that newbies have an especially hard time wrapping their heads around: If you want to get the ball up in to the air, you have to hit down on it.

"People typically try to get the ball up in the air," Mr. Foley says. "People need to realize that they have to hit down. The angle of attack of the golf club into the golf ball has to be descending."

Trying to help the ball into the air is only going to see you duff a shot, most likely skulling the ball so that it rolls along the ground. If you want to get loft on your shots, hit down on it as if you were driving the ball into the ground. Don't be worried about hitting the ground. It's not going to hurt, and the grass will grow back.

DEVELOP A CONFIDENT PRESHOT ROUTINE

What's going through your head before you step up to the ball and give it a whack? "Most [amateurs']preshot routines are just full of fear," Mr. Foley says.

If all you're thinking is "Don't hit it into the sand trap," guess where your ball is likely to end up?

The preshot routine Mr. Foley teaches his players goes like this: Stand about 10 feet behind the ball and figure out the yardage to the flag. Then gauge the conditions (is the wind at your back? coming in from the side?) and select the right club. Then, Mr. Foley says, "make some fluid, rhythmic swings." Next, visualize what you want to see happen. "It's just all imagination at this point." But keep it confident, yet grounded, or as Mr. Foley says, "positive and realistic." Then step up to the ball and execute.

COMPENSATE ON THE COURSE, IMPROVE ON THE RANGE

Suppose you always slice the ball, watching as the ball drifts off through the air onto the right-side rough. If you can't correct that problem during your round, and chances are you can't, then compensate by adjusting your aim to the left.

"Ultimately, you obviously want to work on getting rid of the slice, but this is completely dependent on the individual and their ability to practise," Mr. Foley says. "If they were playing golf on the golf course, I would definitely adjust the aim more to the left, or if you hook it, a bit more to the right."

But even if that helps you knock balls into the fairway, don't settle for it as a solution to the problem. Get to the range and get that slice out of your system.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

 

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