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Tiger Woods’ former coach is white, woke and went to an HBCU

Sean Foley’s experience molded his views on race, diversity and golf

Sean Foley is woke. It’s a characteristic that’s unique among golf instructors, who most commonly cater to the wealthy and teach a game that is by its very nature exclusive. That’s why a conversation with Foley is intriguing, perplexing, thought-provoking and inspiring all at the same time.

Most people know he coached Tiger Woods as his swing instructor from 2010-14. What people don’t know is that he attended Tennessee State University, a historically black institution in Nashville. Or that he credits the works of W.E.B Du Bois, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Nas for influencing the way he views the world.

His “awakening” came during his experience as a white Canadian at a historically black college or university (HBCU). It helped shape his philosophical love of hip-hop music and began to mold his perspective on race, equality and social justice.

We asked Foley about his unique experiences and cultural views, as well as his relationship with Woods.

How did you decided to attend an HBCU, and what was your experience like as a white guy from Canada?

I originally chose Tennessee State because I was given a full athletic scholarship to play golf at a Division I school. Being from Canada, at the time the Canadian dollar was at 63 cents to the U.S. dollar, which would have made it financially difficult to attend a school where my scholarship didn’t cover tuition or room and board.

The first year I spent at TSU was, up to this point at age 43, the most difficult and painful year of my life. There were many people on campus that didn’t want me there. So many days it took all I had inside just to navigate through campus life.

The treatment of African-Americans in this great country is a stain on the fabric of America that will not wash away. I understood the resentment and anger of the kids at school. So I studied and read nonstop, trying at a principal level to understand all I could about the black experience in America. This led me to some of my greatest influences: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. King, James Baldwin and Frederick Douglass opened my mind’s eye to a whole level of understanding I didn’t know was possible.

And as far as the difficult days, I just learned to not take it personally. You have ownership of how you feel. I have adopted and applied this mindset to everything and everyone over my life, which has benefited me in ways words cannot describe.

In what ways did it shape who you are today?

Looking back on it now, I was very fortunate. I was basically one of the only white guys who lived on campus, and that was my reality for five years. Being a minority was the most important experience of my life. To truly have empathy, one must walk in the shoes of others to understand what their path is like. I believe that if all people could experience this, equality would be the law of the land. When America can learn to respect and love black people as much as they do black culture, it will be a different reality altogether.

Attending TSU was, hands down, the most important thing that ever happened to me. There are good people and bad people everywhere, or I should say those who understand and those who don’t. Hatred is a train station where two trains meet up: jealousy and admiration. But in the words of Mandela, ‘If people can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.’ When we can all love ourselves, and one another, there will be justice.

Talib Kweli just said in a new song, although this is something that’s been said before: ‘Knowledge leads to wisdom, wisdom leads to understanding. Once you have understanding, you have justice. Justice is what love looks like in public.’ What a beautiful vision, right? We all must try to do the right thing, and love is always the right thing. It actually may be the only thing.

Did you have a similar viewpoint on culture and race before attending TSU, or was it cultivated in that time?

It was something that started well before then. Being raised in Canada, there’s a pretty big focus on being open-minded. It’s so multicultural there. Even historically speaking, many of the Underground Railroad paths led into Canada.

I had some idea of who the great leaders were because of what my father made me read, but I didn’t know to what extent the struggle existed until I got there. I was stunned, actually.

It’s like, you can read about China or a foreign country all you want, but until you experience it for yourself, you never really know.

Knowledge plus wisdom equals understanding. I think what happened was I had knowledge of it, but attending TSU gave me the wisdom and experience to better understand.

Was hip-hop a big part of your life before that time? What started your love for the musical genre?

My mom is West Indian, so there were Peter Tosh, Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff albums around all the time when I was a kid. They were, in a sense, some of the first MCs. So I was around it even as a kid.

I remember when I was 10 and living in San Francisco, my mom put me in a break-dancing class — it was that whole Beat Street era. I heard Kurtis Blow, The Sugarhill Gang and all that. I just liked it. I liked the energy and the whole vibe.

As hip-hop started to become a little more mainstream, I remember watching Yo! MTV Raps and hearing guys like Rakim and KRS-One, or Boogie Down Productions at that time, and Public Enemy. And I would just go out, get their albums and listen to them all the time. It’s safe to say that none of my friends were listening to it.

I’m really into that East Coast sound, the guys who are lyrical philosophers. I think these guys have so much wisdom and understanding because they had to get to that understanding on their own. It’s not like the school system supported them in that understanding, it’s not like the establishment set them up to reach that point. People who’ve endured a lot typically have more wisdom than those who have endured nothing. To me, they’re scholars in their own way.

Now you have J. Cole, KRS-One and Nas who have spoken at the Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yales of the world. I think many of America’s leaders would benefit from really trying to understand hip-hop. To sit down with scribes like Talib, Mos Def and Nas, and try to understand the extent of the issues. How powerful would it be to have those minds speak congressionally to push our country’s leaders to understand what goes on, how it goes on and how it impacts the people?

Hip-hop has crazy influence among all cultures and races. You go to a Kendrick [Lamar] concert, there are 20,000 kids there and 80 percent of them are white kids. He’s saying some truthful, stoic and interesting things too, and these kids know every word. Many hip-hop artists, they’re changing perception far more than people realize.

Tiger Woods, left, listens to his coach Sean Foley on the driving range during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Monday, April 8, 2013, in Augusta, Ga.

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

During your time with Tiger, did you guys ever discuss these topics? Or was it strictly golf and business for the most part?

Mainly just golf. He listens to all different types of music. I remember I made him an iPod one Christmas with some of my favorite songs on it, and it was admittedly a little heavy for him. That wasn’t really his style.

When he’s at work doing his business, he really knows how to concentrate and focus. So it was mainly about getting out of his way and letting him go through his process.

Nowadays, when I see Tiger, like I do with most people, we just talk about our kids.

You’re on the board of The Bridge Golf Foundation in Harlem. Talk a little bit about that.

It’s a fantastic program, and I’m so happy they asked me to be a part of it. The founders, one of whom is Farrell Evans, who used to write golf for ESPN and who I competed against in college when he was at FAMU [Florida A&M University], went into the school system in Harlem and found kids 13-14 years old who were doing well in school. They identified the kids who were really trying to rise above their circumstances and invited them in at no cost. They teach them golf, but they also provide tutoring, college prep and have an advanced focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and math]. I believe it’s going to have a powerful impact on these kids, but also on the future of golf. Here’s a group of young kids from Harlem who could turn into golfers, who could get a golf scholarship, who could play the game anywhere from recreationally to collegiately to professionally.

Should golf instructors feel a level of social responsibility when it comes to growing the game among people from diverse backgrounds?

One hundred percent. To really do that, you have to set up a time frame and work with kids for no charge. I do it, and I know other guys who’ve done it. That’s what needs to be done. Golf has to, has to, has to get cheaper. Basketball and soccer don’t have problems growing because all you need is a ball and some shoes — or, in the case of Pele, your bare feet and a roll of socks.

As a golf instructor, you can’t expect to get paid if you embrace that responsibility. Now, there are two types of payment: There’s one to the Bank of America and there’s one to your soul. I would argue that if your Bank of America account said a billion and the one in your soul said insufficient funds, then you’re going to be miserable. We have to give our time pro bono, 100 percent, and understand that the payment is so different and really special.

So is class really the biggest barrier to getting into golf?

Change doesn’t happen quickly, but I don’t think it’s a function of race. It’s more so a function of class. What it boils down to is, can they afford to do it or not?

How do people respond when you go into these underserved areas to host youth clinics?

When I go into these communities, with the kids, they see someone who looks like the guy who created the system. Partially, I want them to understand that there are good people in all shapes and forms. I don’t want them to get to where they negate the help of any white guy, because there are a lot of people out there who are going to be able to help them and do have sincere, pure intentions. I don’t want these kids to hear stuff on the news or perhaps see something that perpetuates the racial divide, and then start thinking that’s the way everyone and everything is. That would just make their lives more difficult.

You can’t look at everyone like they’re same. There’s good and bad in everything. And that’s part of why I do it. Letting them know that there are a lot of people out there — black, white, Christian, Muslim, whatever — who are on their side and believe in them.

What are your thoughts on the current racial climate in the United States? As you mentioned, there’s been an incline in division these days.

I’ve been in places like New York or California, where I believe racism is far more dangerous than it is in Georgia, because it’s quiet. Looking deep and beyond what’s in front of you leads to the empathy to understand the struggle that many people endure.

I was listening to the news recently, and they were talking about getting rid of food stamps over the next 10 years and the billions of dollars that it would save the government. At the same time, they were saying it would force people to get out and get jobs — whereas about 50 percent of people who are on food stamps already have a full-time job. I’m just a golf coach and I know that. So more people need to do the research and have a better understanding before they just say things that they can’t back up.

I think it’s shameful the way many people have been treated historically and presently in this country. There are a lot of people who would deny that racism and systemic injustices exist in the world. But they not only exist, it’s the foundation and cement at the base of the structure.

What we need to focus on and remember is that race is an idea, not a fact. The fact is we’re all human.

What’s made you want to speak out on this subject now?

Anyone who knows me closely will tell you that I’ve been talking about these things for a long time. I’m not blind. I know I can walk outside and still get all the benefit of the doubt and privilege that comes from being white. Having my experience, knowledge and understanding makes me more aware of the injustices, and, frankly, I’m at the point where I feel I need to say something. When a message like this comes from other people, especially when it comes from a Caucasian, people’s response is, ‘Did he really just say that?’ But for there to be change in our society, let alone in golf, the message needs to come from people from all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Tiger Woods with swing coach Sean Foley before the third round of play at the 92nd PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisconsin, USA, on Saturday, August 14, 2010.

Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America

You’ve seen that Tiger interview from when he was 14 years old and talked about some of the discrimination he felt rising through the ranks. You know him as well as anyone in his adult life. What are your thoughts on what he said back then and where he is now?

That’s the one where he’s sitting in a golf cart and he has the old Aureus golf shirt on? Look at that dude, look at his eyes and how honest he was. His body language is filled with that young athlete swagger.

People don’t realize that Tiger is probably the most interviewed athlete of his generation, and by far the most interviewed golfer. I did some due diligence during my time with him and tallied the number of in-week and post-round interviews he did on-site during tournaments. It was well over 1,000. Phil Mickelson was second, and he wasn’t even at 500 at the time.

As his career progressed, like a lot of athletes who are in the limelight, I think Tiger was careful with what he said to the media.

Your split with Tiger was cordial. Can you talk a little about it?

I started with Tiger in 2010, obviously post-2009, and it was a bit of a different time. We went through a lot together. At a deeper level, when you go through all that stuff, it strengthens a friendship. I think Tiger knows that I always had his best interest at heart, or at least tried to do the best I could all the time. So, yeah, we had some tough things and we had some really special moments. That friendship is built more on respect than just on like. Overall, I greatly appreciated all he did for me as a person and for my career — and probably vice versa.

You guys are still friends and talk too.

Yeah, we still talk. I still talk to all my past students on tour. It’s not a personal decision when guys split. It’s a business decision. You don’t take it personally.

You spend all this time with somebody, get to know them, see what they went through, even went through it with them, that increases your understanding and respect for a person. That’s my guy. I’m still a big fan. Should’ve seen me the other day when he was playing in the Bahamas [Nov. 30-Dec. 3]; I was checking my phone every few minutes. I was just upset they didn’t have a shot tracker!

I was with the kids at my academy, and we were watching him on the front nine on Sunday. It was amazing to look at the excitement on a 12-year-old’s face, who wasn’t even born when Tiger was doing the brunt of his masterpieces, and that kid was losing his mind and just not able to focus on anything else.

It was amazing to see, but it’s what that guy brings to the game.

Speaking of the Hero World Challenge, what did you think of how he looked in his latest return?

I thought he looked great. He was solid everywhere. Obviously, every time he chipped they were going to talk about it. But if you paid attention to every other player, they were putting and using 3-woods from well off the fringe. The Bermuda grain was pretty nasty out there.

So I thought he chipped well, his bunker play was good, as was his wedge play. He putted incredibly, drove it very nicely and hit a couple of epic 2-irons — some vintage TW stuff.

If you listened to his interviews from that week, he used the word ‘grateful’ multiple times. I think that’s a very good sign. When people become more humble, they become more grateful. I’d guess that during his time off, he focused on something and understood something about himself, and if that leads him to being more grateful for himself and the people around him, that’s not necessarily a good sign for his competitors.

At the same time, you’ll notice the excitement other players have about his return. People ask me, ‘Do you think they mean it when they say that?’ Of course they do. The year before Tiger came on tour, the leading money winner earned less than $2 million. Last year it was almost $10 million. Many of these guys grew up watching those Sundays in the red shirt. A lot of them will tell you that inspired them to want to be there on Sundays — and now they are. We can’t de-signify what he’s done to the game and for the game.

I couldn’t think of a better afternoon than him in contention on Sunday at the Masters. When he’s out there, it just looks right.

How do you view Tiger’s overall impact on the game, and what influence will his return have on the upcoming season?

Tiger has had the single greatest influence on the game of golf since its origin. In his absence, it just doesn’t feel the same. Not only am I grateful to have worked with him, but have been one of his biggest fans for nearly 30 years. As a fan, I am excited to see him compete again. As his friend, I am glad to see him doing what he loves so much. His return is only going to be a great thing for golf and will benefit all of the guys who have played so well and worked so hard to keep professional golf strong in his absence. The game is in a great place, and only Tiger can take it to a greater place.

Tony Starks is the associate editor of PGA Magazine. His name is similar to a certain Marvel superhero's, but he uses his irons to play golf instead of fight bad guys.