Dave Pelz shakes his head sadly when he sees folks banging
mid-irons at the practice range. Bless 'em, they haven't a clue.
A former NASA scientist, the 56-year-old Pelz has the data--oh,
boy, does he have the data--to show that such well-intentioned
ball swatting is almost a complete waste of effort. "Most
golfers practice irons 80 percent of the time," says Pelz. "As a
physicist, I say that is crazy. For every 50 four-irons, you
should hit 1,600 putts."
Pelz has a grand plan to save the world from chunked chips,
pushed putts and skulled sand shots. And he can help you, too,
if you will do two things: 1) wholeheartedly accept and cherish
the gospel according to Dave, and 2) pay him $2,660. That might
sound like a lot of money, but the Dave Pelz Short Game School
is one of the hottest tickets in golf, and most students say
it's worth every penny. There is a long waiting list to get into
one of the 16-person signature classes, which are held once or
twice a month at three sites around the country, and PGA Tour
players drop in constantly--paying the full freight--to hear
Pelz lecture on the "rituals of the wedge" and other sweet
mysteries of the game from 60 yards in.
Does it work? Ask any of his successful graduates: Mark Brooks,
Beth Daniel, Steve Elkington, Peter Jacobsen, Tom Kite and
Irving Stein, a jeweler from New Jersey. You see, Pelz is a
virtual Statue of Liberty for golfers. Give him your tired
swings, your poor putting strokes, your buried bunker shots
yearning to be free. He embraces one and all, from Swedish pro
Jesper Parnevik, who after taking the lead in this year's
Greater Milwaukee Open two weeks after a Dave Pelz session said,
"I can't remember when I have putted this well," to a writer
with a 16 handicap who used to feel a large, cold mass form in
his stomach every time he was faced with a 30-yard pitch over
sand. Pelz treats all the campers the same. He breaks them down
with an eye-glazing barrage of numbers and pie charts, pumps
them up with feel-good jingles, then sends them out to the range
to dispatch one large pile of practice balls after another with
delicate half swings. "Three thousand bucks, and I never raised
the club above my waist," former baseball great Al Rosen
muttered after attending the school. Only serious (not talented,
just serious) golfers need apply.
Although our class took place in the breathtaking Rocky
Mountains surrounding Vail, Colo., where this year Pelz built a
permanent site--he also has locations in Boca Raton, Fla., and
LaQuinta, Calif.--we weren't there to study the flora and fauna.
The three-day sessions began promptly at 8 a.m., and while we
were supposed to be finished at 5:30 each evening, we never
quite got everything wrapped up by then. At the end of the
second day, when I returned to the hotel to find my wife eager
to go out to dinner, I could only flop weakly on the bed and beg
for a nap. "What have you been doing all day?" she asked
suspiciously. Well, we were immersed in the Dave Pelz
laboratory, and by the time we finished getting shot with laser
beams, slapping high wedge shots out of the sand and studying
Pelz's complicated charts, we were worn to a frazzle.
Pelz's original premise was that golfers would improve their
score dramatically by learning, as the title of his 1989 book
suggests, to Putt like the Pros. Although that is still a
central theme at the school, he has modified the theorem somewhat.
In exhaustive research Pelz discovered a couple of key facts
about putting. First, the pros don't roll it as well as you
might think. "The best putters in the world with the best
strokes in the world miss 50 percent of their six-foot putts,"
Pelz says. "So as soon as you get more than 10 feet away, it's
highly unlikely that you are going to make the putt." Second,
there are several good reasons for missing, mostly involving
footprints, ball marks and what Pelz calls the lumpy doughnut
formed around the hole by heavy traffic. Even with his
personally designed "true roller," a mechanical putter, Pelz
could not make much more than half of 1,800 12-foot putts. That
was a moment when Pelz, a burly, enthusiastic John Madden type,
had another in a series of eureka moments. "Your score depends
more on where you putt from than how you putt," he says. "There
is a tremendous dependence on distance; therefore the finesse
wedges are the most important shots in golf." Ergo, campers are
sent to the range to flip balls into nets no more than 60 yards
Pelz is a true believer in the value of the sand wedge, the lob
wedge and even the extra-lob wedge and suggests that you might
remove the six-iron, for example, to make room for more lofted
clubs. He found that pros generally missed the green to the left
or right with their middle irons, but were either short or long
with their wedges. The reason? They all knew that they hit their
seven-iron 154 yards (or whatever) but none knew exactly how far
a half sand wedge was going to go. "At that point I said, 'Pelz,
you know something that nobody else in the world knows.' And I
have to tell you, I love that," says Pelz.
It wasn't until we stepped into what instructor Ty Waldron
insisted on calling "your friend, the sand," that some of us
experienced our first crisis of faith. The Dave Pelz bunker shot
is a huge, dramatic swoop, complete with a high, full
follow-through and a body turn. Placing the ball so far in front
of your front foot that it appears unreachable, you open the
club face until it is pointing straight up at Ursa Minor and
swing to displace enough sand to plant a full-grown tomato vine.
The results fall into two categories: a hovering, delicate
parachute that flutters down next to the flag, and a blistering,
heat-seeking missile that leaves the sand like a thunderbolt and
is only reaching full height and velocity as it passes over the
flag on its way into the clear, mountain sky. "More sand," the
instructor murmurs after the latter.
It was heresy, but at that point some of us began to doubt Pelz.
The good news is Dave has been there. He tells some of the best
stories on himself. "Ninety-nine percent of my ideas are no
good," he says. In his book Pelz recalls the moment he realized
that the optimum putt should travel exactly 17 inches past the
hole. He was so excited that at 2 a.m. he phoned Jim Simons, a
Tour player he was working with, to share the good news. Simons,
who was not only playing in a Tour event but also had an early
tee time, was less enthusiastic. However, Pelz kept after him
and finally won over Simons, who marched onto the 1st tee that
morning determined to make more putts by hitting his ball hard
enough to send it 17 inches past the hole. That night he called
Pelz back. "I want to thank you for helping me miss my first cut
of the year," Simons said. Both men learned the same lesson: Go
slow with new ideas.
"I tend to go overboard," says Pelz, making the understatement
of the week. When most guys miss a putt, they kick the ball
washer. Pelz sets up a computer program to find out what went
wrong. You have to give him credit for an extremely active mind,
but you wonder if you would want to eat breakfast with him.
O.K., take a couple of bites of oatmeal the way you normally
would. Good. Now let's look at the angle of your elbow....
Nothing better illustrates the depth of Pelz's knowledge than
the way he approaches putting. He put us on a five-step program
for reading a putt, used a laser beam to check the direction in
which our putters were aimed (almost everyone's was way, way
off), showed us a drill to determine the putter's sweet spot and
conducted a session with a metronome to discover our inner
I had come to camp with a peculiar, hunched-over putting stance
that made me appear to be resting my forehead on a kitchen
table. I took an extremely short backswing, then popped the ball
with what I hoped was a Jack Nicklaus-like piston stroke. Not
textbook, I know, but good enough to beat my brother-in-law.
Still, when I assumed my position over the ball on the first day
so that I could be videotaped, I felt like someone submitting a
painting of dogs playing poker to the Metropolitan Museum of
Art. The Pelz people suppressed snickers--probably due to years
of practice--and matter-of-factly stood me up, positioned my
arms so they swung directly beneath my shoulders and had me
check the angle of my putter after I struck the ball. But that
was it for the mechanics.
When Pelz looked at the tape, he immediately noticed something,
but it wasn't that I appeared to be putting while balancing a
piano on my back. He was more concerned with what I did after I
hit the ball. Sure enough, the ball was barely away when I began
making exasperated gestures. By the time it stopped, I had
already turned around to complain that I had pushed the putt.
Typical, Pelz said. How long was my stroke? I hadn't noticed.
Was my putter on line? Who knows? Had I read the line correctly?
Probably not, because the ball didn't drop. "Most golfers judge
their stroke by whether the ball goes in the hole," Pelz says.
"That is wrong. You need immediate, reliable, accurate
feedback." Pelz told us to follow the example of Greg Norman,
who freezes his putting stroke where it stops, moving only his
head to watch the ball. When his ball reaches the hole, Norman
looks down and gets a read on how far it went based on the
length of his stroke--immediate, reliable, accurate feedback.
At that point Pelz introduced his rituals, which are the
touchy-feely part of the program. Instructor Jackie Bertram,
whose promising LPGA career was cut short by a serious knee
injury, demonstrated the method. She said she would stand over a
putt and begin to think, You know, this might break a little
more than I thought. Well, I'll just hit it a little harder. Or
should I? Naw, it'll be fine. Just go ahead and hit it. This
revelation gave rise to two questions: How was Bertram able to
get a transcript of the conversations inside my brain, and what
could I do to eliminate them? The Pelz solution is a five-step
ritual, carefully counted off in time with your putting rhythm.
The ritual is triggered by a simple motion, such as lifting a
thumb off the putter, and is followed by an inexorable,
mind-filling sequence of movements--thumb down, look to the
hole, look back at the ball, take the putter back and swing it
through the ball.
That's when most of us regained our faith in the word according
to Dave. The ritual, which we also learned to use on wedge
shots, focuses the mind and leaves the body free to hit the
shot. "Your subconscious controls your game," Pelz says. "You
must control your subconscious." Of course, there was still much
to be done. Pelz had us work on the "truth board," an inclined,
carpet-covered putting track, and instructed us to mentally run
through the ritual as often as possible.
Does it all work? I played 18 holes the day after
graduation--"Worst thing you can do," Pelz had warned--and
floundered. I'd lost my swing somewhere in the lecture hall. But
there was a moment when I came face-to-face with my personal
nightmare: 30 yards of grass, broken by a yawning bunker. I
lined up a wedge, ran through my ritual and lofted a high, soft
shot that took one hop, clanged off the flagstick and stopped a
foot from the cup.
Hand me the truth board, Dave. I'm ready to take the oath.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM DEFRISCO [Dave Pelz]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM DEFRISCO Indoors and out, students use a variety of practice aids to help get their putting strokes on track. [Students practicing putting indoors; students practicing putting outdoors]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TIM DEFRISCO It takes mountains of practice balls for some to get the hang of the Pelz method of sand play. [Students golfing out of bunker]