Presently at work on the early phases of his eighth instructional book, Dave Pelz’s Secrets of GreenReading, the godfather of the short game is going strong—some 40 years after leaving his career as a NASA physicist.
Three of Dave Pelz’s professional students currently rank fourth (Phil Mickelson) sixth (Patrick Reed) and 20th (Brendan Steele) in the FedEx Cup Standings. Through the course of his teaching career, 11 of his students have won a total of 21 Major Championships. The Wall Street Journal dubbed his backyard golf complex “The World’s Greatest Backyard” and Golf Digest called him one of Golf’s 20 Most Influential Figures of the 20th Century. Pelz is as “on-topic” as ever, as evidenced in his insightful nine-page preview of the upcoming U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills in the June 2018 issue of GOLF Magazine.
THE PELZ STORY —
I have always enjoyed the technical side of life, and I especially enjoyed the space research I did at NASA, Goddard Space Flight Center from 1960 to 1975. But then I had an epiphany. I realized I was a golfer who loved physics, rather than a physicist who loved golf.
The game fascinated me endlessly. For example, I needed to know—empirically and statistically– how PGA TOUR pros with “not-so-great” swings could win the biggest tournaments in the world. Masters champions like George Archer and Gay Brewer, who weren’t great ball strikers, perplexed me. So I took a leave of absence (and later resigned) from NASA and focused my scientific acumen on the PGA TOUR.
For the next three years, notepad in hand, I went to tournaments, jotting down the results of every shot I saw. My data showed that the short game—shots of 100 yards or less—was 60 to 65 percent of golf, a majority share that also happened to be the weakest part of most players’ games. From beyond 100 yards, the average Tour pro missed his target by a 7 percent margin — a 14-yard error, for example, on a 200-yard shot. From inside 100 yards, though, the Pros’ percentage error jumped to 16 to 20 percent. That was the magic moment for me: When I realized the pros were weak in the short game, and I measured that amateurs were much worse. The fact was, golfers of every skill level had serious need to improve their short game and putting skills.
From that point on, I knew I’d never need to teach a new driver swing or cure for the slice. By focusing on the short game and putting, I could “fish where the fish are” by helping golfers improve where they were losing the most strokes. By improving their short games, I could lead them to shoot lower scores. I just had no idea how big the pond was and how many fish were living there.
When golfers are practicing what percentage of time should they dedicate to short game and putting?
I’d like to see golfers dividing their practice time into thirds: one-third for their short game, one-third for putting, and one-third for the full swing, and practice them in that order. They should always first prepare for those par-5 wedge approaches and greenside shots they’re certainly going to have. Lag putting before a round will get your putting muscles engaged and to show you how the greens are rolling. I’d like to see you develop high, mid and low shots you can trust when you’re 14 to 20 yards from the pin, because that’s a distance you’re going to find yourself recovering from frequently.
What prevents golfers from doing just that?
Most golfers spend 80 to 90 percent of their practice time hitting woods and irons because they want to be sure they’re “dialed in” to their swing fundamentals. They say “if I can’t get to the green, then nothing else matters. But the truth is, and our data shows, golfers actually lose 80 percent of their shots to par from inside of 100 yards, so you really need to make time to practice your short game and putting. Lack of time to get to good practice facilities is another factor. The good news is you can practice short game and putting habits anywhere. Grab a laundry basket at home and some backyard-safe practice balls (almostGOLF™ balls) and practice hitting to a target you’ve set out at a known distance. And there are great teaching aids available to work on your putting at home on your carpet.
Biggest mistake people make when hitting pitch and chip shots?
Ball position is a killer for many golfers. Most golfers don’t chip with the ball far enough back in their stances. Playing the low-running chip off (with a 7- or 8-iron so the ball comes off low and rolls out) off your back foot will help you avoid hitting it fat. A pitch shot should be played with a more-lofted wedge and from the center of your stance.
Biggest mistake people make when putting — especially those within 5-feet or less?
Most golfers practice putting without good feedback. They simply putt. But practice with learning aids can help you determine if your misses and makes are a product of your aim, stroke or your read. You have to know this if you’re going to improve your weaknesses and putt consistently. I don’t intend to do a plug for the Putting Tutor—which I designed with Phil Mickelson—here, but it happens to help you groove a good stroke, aim your putts and work on your green-reading. Feedback is crucial.
Should average golfers really have a 60-degree wedge in their bag?
Absolutely. The way greens and their surrounds are designed today, you have to have loft and good spin to stop the ball close to the hole. A 60-degree wedge is not any more difficult to hit than a 52- or 56-degree club if you accelerate the clubhead through and past impact. Once a golfer uses a lob wedge for a while, it becomes a favorite club, a go-to weapon. Without it, you’re just making the game harder. All the Pros use 60-degree wedges, and the more greens you miss, the more you need one.
How much of an impact do different grass surfaces have regarding short game techniques?
When you find your ball, you have to assess its lie before you can decide how you’re going to play the next shot. For soft, fluffy lies, you’ll want a club with more bounce. Less bounce for shots from tight lies. If you’re catching the ball cleanly and playing the right amount of bounce, you’ll manage different grasses fine. “Firm and fast” conditions will put a premium on clean contact and the proper amount of backspin.
If you change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be and why?
I’d let amateurs anchor their putters if they wanted to and I’d give them back their boxed-grooved wedges.
The major golf organizations — USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA TOUR, LPGA — are all seeking way to attract new players to the game. This is especially so with Millennials, women and minorities. If you were counseling them — what would you advise be done?
Non-traditional golf venues like Top Golf are great, but you have to reinforce new-golfer participation be giving golfers a means of learning the game “From-the-Hole-Out.” Nobody is going to master the 280-yard drive with a baby cut right off the bat. You have to have instruction and suitable venues where people can learn to go from short putts to longer putts to chips and pitches before they get thrown into full-swing golf. Golf’s learning curve can be steep enough to scare people away, so we have to address that by keeping putting and the short game fun and engaging with games, drills and quality instruction.
Best advice you ever received — what was it and who from?
“Do or do not. There is no try.” That’s the sage wisdom of Yoda (Star Wars).
Curious to know — if you had to rank the top players you have ever seen regarding dexterity in the short game and putting areas which ones would you select among the men and women?
Phil Mickelson has the best short game ever, but Patrick Reed is nipping at his heels. Ben Crenshaw is the best putter I’ve ever seen, with Brad Faxon and Jordan Spieth being almost as good. I honestly can’t rate the LPGA players in these categories, as I simply have not spent enough time on their Tour to see and evaluate them.
Photos courtesy: Pelz Golf