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Tiger Woods' change speaks volumes

9/8/2010 - Golf Tiger Woods

LEMONT, Ill. -- They might not have a formal deal, and his new student-teacher relationship will not be exclusive, but Tiger Woods is buying into what Sean Foley is selling.

That was certainly the vibe Wednesday at Cog Hill, where Woods played in the BMW Championship pro-am with Foley tagging along for a few holes, then joining him in the afternoon on the driving range.

Everything Woods does, of course, is scrutinized well beyond what anyone else faces, but the notion that the game's No. 1 player is ready to commit to the teachings of a coach whose philosophies differ greatly from previous instructors Hank Haney and Butch Harmon certainly is telling.

It means that Woods could very well struggle or fail to show results for the immediate future. And it very well might delay the return to greatness that saw him win six major championships under Haney from 2005 through 2008 and eight under Harmon from 1997 through 2002.

Asked if Foley was his coach, Woods replied, smiling: "He's coaching me."

Semantics aside, Woods has been spending time with Foley for more than a month. They worked together at the PGA Championship. They spent a few days together in Orlando, Fla. -- where Woods lives and where Foley is based -- prior to the Barclays.

And Woods has seen steady progress, although a few weeks ago he was not quite ready to dive into these waters.

"It's an understanding that I have to wrap my head around because it's going to take some time," he said prior to the Barclays.

Asked about that on Wednesday, Woods has obviously come a long way in two weeks.

"That's one of the things I had to understand," he said. "I needed to understand the whole concept before I committed to what I was doing. It's nice when you get rewarded with results, and the shots that I'm hitting now, it's been a long time since I've been able to do that. That's always a good sign.

"I've committed to the concepts, and more than anything, I understand what he's trying to teach. So that's the biggest thing."

Here's the rub: Is Woods willing to regress or struggle with his game while he figures out the nuances of Foley's methods?

It has happened each of the previous times he overhauled his swing in search of long-term consistency.

After winning four times in 1997, including the Masters, Woods went back to the drawing board with Harmon, won just once in 1998 and then went on a tear, winning 27 PGA Tour events, including eight majors, between 1999 and 2002.

In 2003, Woods won five times, but no majors, and had split with Harmon. He started working with Haney in 2004, a year in which he won just once, and had just one top-10 in majors.

The following year he went on another run that saw him win 31 PGA Tour events, including six majors, between 2005 and 2009.

But Haney, after six years, decided in May to part ways with Woods, who said he would go it alone. Now it is Foley's turn, and if the past is any indication of the future, Woods might need to invoke all of his powers of patience.

"That's where experience helps," Woods said. "I've been through it with Butch and I've been through it with Hank. I've been through it before and it's taken some time, and I understand that. I have no problem with that, as long as I keep making progress along the way."

The problem for Woods is the amount of attention his game receives, regardless. If Phil Mickelson misses a cut, Ernie Els finishes 50th, or any other top player goes through the inevitable down periods all golfers face, very little is made of it.

But just about everyone knows that Woods has not won on the PGA Tour in a year, that he has just two top-10s this season, that his three rounds to finish the Deutsche Bank last week marked the first time he had strung three together in the 60s since last year's Tour Championship. And every time he misses a fairway, the sirens start blaring.

A swing change is a complicated deal, even for Woods, which suggests he might not necessarily pile up the hardware with the amazing frequency of the past.

"When you're out there on the golf course playing, it's understanding how to fix it," Woods said. "That's the hardest part. You can do it on the range. You get into a rhythm or whatever it is and hit ball after ball after ball, but out here on the course you hit a couple bad ones, how do you fix it?

"And knowing the answer and being confident in the answer, that took a lot of time with Butch and it took some time with Hank, and it's taken some time with Sean, but not quite as long."

Unlike his arrangement with Haney, Woods will be sharing Foley with his peers.

Foley, a Canadian instructor who has relocated to Florida, teaches the likes of Stephen Ames, Sean O'Hair, Hunter Mahan, Justin Rose and Parker McLachlin. Foley said it will be no problem fitting Woods in.

"You don't need [exclusivity], it's not necessary, because you don't need that much time, especially when you live in the same area code," Foley said. "It's perfect."

Whether or not their work will turn into the kind of perfection Woods has displayed remains to be seen.

But it can't be judged immediately. As much as people expect great results from Woods no matter the circumstances, he has seemingly decided that it is OK to take a few steps backward in order to move forward.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.