Q&A With Sean Foley – Tiger’s Former Coach Talks Race and Diversity Within the Golf Industry

Interview conducted by Tony L. Starks

Sean Foley doesn’t hold his tongue. He’s opinionated, candid and educated on a variety of subjects beyond the game of golf. Few people know that the Canadian-born Foley attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) in Tennessee. He also has a keen interest and deep knowledge of hip hop culture and many of the genre’s lyrical greats.

The eccentric 43-year-old is uniquely positioned to have an opinion on the subjects of race and diversity in golf. We spoke with Foley recently about a variety of things pertaining to the topic.

A lot of people may not know it, but you make it a point to go into African-American communities and other underservedareas to host youth clinics. Does your level of enlightenment on the subject of race – not to mention the fact that you attended an HBCU (Historically Black College or University) and know hip hop way better than most – drive you to connect with those young people?

Foley: I just feel like they’ve been left behind. 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 – that are on their side and believe in them.

Talk a little about how attending an HCBU and your interest in hip hop have influenced your perspective.

Foley:  When I went to Tennessee State, some of my fellow students had never heard of W.E.B Dubois. People didn’t know who Booker T. Washington was; they didn’t know the story of Marcus Garvey. The history of people of African decent, and that history’s influence on the modern world, is amazing. But too few people know that. So many individuals don’t know their culture’s heroes or history – the people who risked life and limb to give them a better day. When I was in school I thought, it’s the calculated miseducation that caused that. These are not the things that are taught in American schools. There is lost history.

Many people point to musicians and lyricists as modern heroes in the African-American community. And you don’t have to look far to find enlightening examples there too. We just lost Prodigy from Mobb Deep. How about when he said “I’m only 19, but my mind is old”? He was talking about the real world things he was forced to experience while he was still a kid because of where and how he grew up. He was forced to be an adult too fast. Nas on Live at the BBQ said “At twelve I went to Hell for snuffing Jesus.” And people are like wow, that’s a really crazy lyric. But when he’s twelve years old and walking around Queens Bridge, he’s saying, this god you’re telling me about must not exist because why are we living like this?

Getting back to the youth golf clinics, in the way I view things, kids are kids. I don’t care what financial, racial or whatever background they come from. Whenever I have a kid in front of me, whether he or she comes from a lot or nothing, it’s an opportunity to get him or her to understand something that they don’t understand yet – whether it’s about golf, life, history or
hip hop.

I’m going to put my attention where I can have the most positive influence. The fact of the matter is, a lot of wealthy kids are getting pretty good advice from their parents or the schools they attend. I think everyone’s parents love them, but there’s that other aspect to parenting, which is providing them the wisdom and knowledge to navigate the world. Talib Kweli just said in a new song, although this is something that’s been said before: “Knowledge leads to wisdom, wisdom leads understanding. Once you have understanding, you have justice. Justice is what love looks
like in public.”

That’s such a great comment. The idea of pure justice is absolutely a direct subsidiary of love. My message to everyone is love.

People say, “You have to think positively on the golf course.” To that I say you just have to have love for yourself in all situations – the positivity is a correlation, not a cause.

What are your thoughts on the current racial climate in the United States? There’s seemingly been an incline of racial tension and division in recent years.

Foley:  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 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.

Sean Foley

Talk a little bit about your journey in your career.

Foley:  I had good parents who loved me and did everything like that, but at 19 my dad was pretty much like, “Hey kid, good luck. It’s going to be tough down there and don’t ask me for money. Here’s the name of a bank manager and you can get a bank loan.”

So I started my career owing $70,000. To get to the point I got to – and knowing how I got there – it was basically learning how to endure pain, interact with all kinds of different people and deal with life.

A friend of mine, Statik Selectah (a music producer and DJ on SiriusXM radio), did a two-hour special on Prodigy and I asked him to read this on the air for me. “Mobb Deep from 1994-99 did two things for me. I learned from Prodigy how to deal with the pain and accept by any means necessary how to succeed in a dog-eat-dog world. I also learned from them, that they were the crossroads between the ghetto of Queens Bridge and the elusive American Dream. They did not glorify banging, but simply explained the truth of the inner city. ‘If I can’t make it, I’ll take it.’ Cats like Prodigy and countless other MCs we’ve loved and have learned from…let (people) understand what’s going on in the streets and what’s not going on in the schools.”

I’m just a golf coach, but that’s blasted over Sirius radio last night. Just wherever I can get people to hear something and get the wheels turning and get people to think, that’s what I’m after. When people hear Prodigy, they say: “That’s so violent, I can’t believe you listen to that.” I’m like, it had to be, what else was he going to do? In order to change the circumstances of his life, he felt he had no other options. But he just tells the story of so many others that endured the same type of circumstances, but they didn’t have his artistic ability and vision to turn those circumstances into music.

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 a change in our society, let alone in golf, the message needs to come from people from all ethnicities and backgrounds.

Do you think golf is more accessible now than it’s ever been in history, and what are your thoughts on making it even more accessible? 

Foley:  I do agree that the game is more available now than at any point in history. Look at the amount of videos on social media of people golfing for the first time at places like Topgolf. I think that’s going to get a lot of people in the door. From there, if people earn enough money to stick with it or they work at a golf course or what have you, then that could be a way into the game.

Golf is hard; you do a lot of work for not a lot of reward. But at Topgolf, every time you hit a ball it rolls into a thing and you get points. I think that is having a bigger impact than people think.

With The First Tee, I’m not totally knowledgeable about that organization, but my young kid that I work with, Cameron Champ, that’s how he came up and found golf. So they’ve had an impact

But people are going to do what they see their heroes doing, especially kids. Who’s that next hero?

Does it have to be a PGA Tour professional from the diversity community? I don’t know, maybe not. There are high profile actors like Will Smith among many others who are into the game, and athletes from other sports, as well.  I’ve met so many NFL guys who can’t wait to finish practice so they can go to the golf course. Then of course there’s Steph Curry, maybe the highest profile athlete in the country and his love of golf is well known.

Is class the biggest barrier to getting into golf?

Foley:  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?

What role should golf instructors play in growing the game among people from diverse backgrounds, if any at all?

Foley:  I do it, and I know other guys who’ve done it; we set up a two-hour timeframe and work with kids for no charge. That’s what needs to be done. 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,” than you’re going to be miserable. We have to give our pro bono time 100 percent and understand that the payment is so different and really special.