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 away.
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....