Dave Pelz on his new book and why 2013 might be Phil Mickelson’s best season ever
Golf might not be rocket science, but Dave Pelz treats it that way. Phil Mickelson's short-game coach and former NASA engineer, Pelz pioneered the use of data in golf instruction and the scientific method is the backbone of his famous short-game schools and popular instruction books (and monthly Golf Magazine column). His latest book -- Dave Pelz's Putting Games -- is focused on helping amateurs find time to practice every day without having to leave home. We caught up with Pelz to talk about his book, the biggest putting flaw and why 2013 might be Phil Mickelson's best season ever.
Dave Pelz's Putting Games is your first putting book in 10 years. Why this book and why now?
The reason this book is appearing now is that I've gotten my learning aids into shape. My goal is to get people to practice and improve their games at home. The focus of my working life now is to help golfers improve and shoot lower scores. I've been doing that in my schools for years, but the biggest problem I have is that now that I know how to teach and I know what to give people in terms of instruction and in terms of learning better techniques, they still don't have time to practice.
Most of us have to work for a living. You get home at 5 or 6, and you're tired. You don't want to leave your wife, you want to have supper, and you want to be with your kids. To drive to a golf course, even if it's a quarter-mile away, it takes a half hour to get out, get in your car, get your clubs, go to the course, park, get balls, talk to the pro and get out on the range. So if you want to practice for 15 minutes, it's taking you an hour. Not many golfers are willing to spend an hour to practice for 15 minutes. I found that if I put some targets and some artificial turf that was really realistic in my backyard that you can hit shots in your backyard or on a putting surface -- we've got artificial turf that's as good as the really good greens. So I can practice at home now. To get 15 minutes of practice for me takes 16 minutes. I have to get out of my chair and walk 40 steps. I practice for 15 minutes then go back and sit down. I could do that after work every night and then I could go play on the weekend at the golf course and shoot lower scores and not feel guilty that I haven't practiced
(Related Photos: Dave Pelz's Backyard Golfer's Paradise)
With all the advances in instruction and equipment, why aren't amateur handicaps going down?
The equipment is better, the balls are better and golf courses are in better shape. Pros are scoring lower because they're really practicing and they take advantage of all the advances in technology. But with amateurs, handicaps aren't going down. They're hitting the ball farther into the woods. They're skulling their sand shots and leaving them in the sand just like they used to and they're putting terribly -- not everybody of course, but a lot of people. So my whole focus is to help people practice at home. This book is focused on that because in addition to getting the backyard turf, I've got these indoor learning games so that people can work on their putting stroke indoors. Dave Pelz's Putting Games is a book on putting and I've got 21 games here that if you play them at home during the week you will score better on the weekends. The more you play them during the week, the better you score on the weekends.
I saw photos of your backyard practice area on Golf.com and it looks like every golfer's dream. How much did that cost you and how much would it cost to build my own?
Mine is not a good example because I've put in fairways and rough and I did the whole thing. I'm in Texas and we've been in a terrible drought the last couple years so I wanted the whole thing to be synthetic turf: no water, no cutting, no maintenance. For golf alone, you can get a really nice backyard practice area. The smaller ones would be $5,000 to $8,000 and then they go up to $10,000-$12,000, even $15,000. You can get a pretty nice green complex and a little target area, and some hitting areas. It all depends on how much space you have. If you're going to do more than putt, then you've got to look at where the balls are going to go when you hit a bad wedge shot. But it's not terrifyingly expensive.
(Related Photos: Dave Pelz's Backyard Blueprints for Your Home)
You also say that you can practice effectively inside your own home. How does that work?
The main thing I've done -- with this book in particular -- is get the putting so that when you practice indoors you're hitting the ball off a plate or something is attached to your putter so you get feedback on every stroke. You can see if your face angle is open or closed. For example, this morning I've already done my touch-putting drill, where I just putt into a pillow. Doesn't matter what kind of carpet because I'm putting off the Touch Tutor and I've got it adjusted to the speed of the greens on my local course. So when I putt a ball indoors, I'm looking at a target down the hallway that's 50 feet away but I can putt the actual ball into a pillow six feet away. I stroke my first putt and the Touch Tutor gives a score of three. What that means is that I didn't hit it 50 feet, I hit it 54 feet. So the next putt I hit a little easier and I get a 2. That means I got it within 3 feet of the hole. I putted about 52 feet. The next putt was 49 feet. Another 2. Then I got a 4 when I hit behind it a little bit and left it way short. Then I made one. This little device gives me a score every 12 strokes so I can practice my lag putting indoors and that really helps me on the golf course because I can set it for my golf course and it's as good as if I was on the practice green. And this game takes less than five minutes.
What's the biggest flaw amateurs have on the putting green?
Three-putting. Everybody wants to make more 4- and 5- and 8- and 10-footers and that's good for your game. But my research shows more amateurs lose strokes by three-putting than from not making the short ones. It's funny. If you compare the pros and amateurs from 3 and 5 and 10 feet, amateurs putt within 15 to 20 percent of how the pros putt from inside of 10 feet. Take a 3-foot putt: pros make 95 percent of those, and amateurs make 85 percent. That's pretty good. You get out to 8 and 9 feet and amateurs are about 15 to 20 percent worse. Then they get a little bit worse as they go to 15, 20 and 25 feet. The astounding thing is that when you get over 35 feet -- that's what we call lag putting, even the pros don't make many from here -- amateurs three-putt six times more often than the pros do. That means they're putting 600 percent worse, not 20 percent worse or 30 percent worse. The only reason is that they never practice this. Amateurs don't practice long putts because they don't have anywhere to practice then. It's not that lag putting is harder. In fact, it's easier because you don't have to worry about your aim. It's intuitive; nobody putts in the wrong direction like with the driver. It's an easy stroke. Amatuers can save more strokes by stopping three-putting than by working on their short putts.
Was there a "eureka!" moment at NASA when you saw that you'd be able to apply your scientific research methods to golf or was it a natural progression?
There was an epiphany. I went to Indiana University on a golf scholarship and played for four years. I wanted to play the tour. I happened to major in physics and I'm a numbers guy. I have a scientific mind. I wanted to play the tour but I wasn't good enough. I just couldn't make it. At that time I was good enough that I thought if I got a little better maybe I could chase the dream, but I got this great job at Goddard Space Center doing space research. So I let my golf take second place for awhile. For 15 years I was a research scientist and I loved it. But during that time, my golf genes kicked it. I had the research tools and I started measuring why I wasn't as good at putting as I should have been. I looked at the data and realized that not only is 65 percent of the game inside 100 yards, but 80 percent of the strokes lost to par are inside 100 yards. So if you're going to improve, you've got to improve inside of 100 yards. Nobody had ever told me that.
When I was trying to be a player, the coaches tried to fix my swing and help me hit drives better and 2-irons better and 5-irons better -- back in those days everybody carried a 2-iron and a 1-iron and those clubs were very hard to hit. My swing wasn't as good as it should have been, but then again nobody else's was either. It turns out what I needed was short-game help and putting help and nobody gave me that. When I realized through the data that 80 percent of the shots lost are within 100 yards of the hole, I thought, "I'm not going to play the tour because I love what I'm doing, but I could really help golfers if they realized the short game was more important than the long game." It became an obsession, it became a passion and after 15 years at NASA I left to go into golf full-time and I've been in golf now for over 30 years. It really is what I wake up thinking about and what I'm still thinking about as I lay down at night. I'm trying to make the game easier to understand so people can practice it and get some benefit from these learning aids that I've developed for putting.
How do the learning aids work?
The devices are using these tiny little things called accelerometers and gyroscopes so you can put a little device on the bottom of your putter or you can put the ball on a plate and hit the ball and the device will measure what the ball is actually doing. That means I know if you've hit the ball on the heel or toe of your putter, and I can teach you to hit it solid. I know if your face is open or closed, and I can teach you to not to hit it offline. I can show you how your putt would roll on any green so you can practice that indoors even without a good carpet. Golfers can truly, honest to God, improve their putting indoors over the winter. That's what this book is all about.
Do you use any of these games with Phil Mickelson?
Yes, he's been using the Putting Tutor for several years. In fact, all of the games are used in my school and I've been using them for years. It's not like they're new and they might work or they might not. They're all proven to work. The games were developed to help my students. What's new is the devices to help you measure these things indoors without being on a putting green. And that's the key to this book. That you can do it at home with your kids. And you don't have to go anywhere after work.
You started teaching Mickelson in late 2003 when he was already one of the all-time great short-game players. So what exactly do you teach Mickelson?
[Laughs] It's really interesting. Honestly, I've probably learned more from Phil than he's learned from me. Starting in January, it will be my 10th year with Phil, and he's just a fabulous student and a friend. And of course a great, great player. Over these nine years, what I've tried to do is measure where he's losing most of his strokes and where he could improve. It turns out that he was a great short-game player before I ever met him, so I don't take any credit for that. But what I found out is that he didn't hit the easy shots much better than the rest of the players.
He is by far the best difficult-short-game executioner that I've ever seen and that I think has ever played the game. He can hit the hard shots better than anyone has ever hit them before. Now give him an a easy little chip shot that's just a 10-yard carry onto a green with 30 feet of green space and he just almost doesn't open his eyes. He doesn't pay attention to it. That's one of the first things we found out. We need to get him to focus and try to make the shot, and he actually makes a lot more than he used to because now when there's an easy one, he's got the mental attitude that "I'm going to try to make this" instead of not paying attention to it. We're trying to challenge him. And we've learned that if we go to a major early and we play practice rounds, we can find some areas of the course that are going to challenge his short game that he hasn't been tuned up on, and we tune him up. I'm more of a tuning-up coach and a fine-detail coach. I'm not teaching him fundamentals. He knows the fundamentals of the short game. He knows the fundamentals of putting.
Where's Mickelson's game at right now?
This year you may have noticed he was experimenting with his putting. He's been doing this because his short game is the best in the world and it's the best it's ever been, and his driving is better than it's ever been. It's not the best in the world yet, but it's pretty long and it's reasonably straight. So his ballstriking is the best it's ever been and his short game is the best it's ever been. But his putting wasn't up to standard this year. One time he was playing with Keegan Bradley and Brendan Steele and he was hitting the ball better than either one of them for 36 holes and they dusted him. That really made him mad and he started messing with the belly putter and the long putter and experimenting to see if we could find any way that he can improve and get his putting up to the level of everything else. If he can get that next year better than it's ever been then he will have the best year of his career.
What's the most amazing shot you've ever seen?
I saw him lay the ball against the far edge of the bunker -- imagine the bunker's like a bowl and the ball is on the upslope on the far side. He's got a downhill lie to an elevated green and there's just no way to hit the shot. So he turns around with his back to the hole and swings the other way and hits it back over his own head. He did three shots. One went in the hole, one was about four feet from the hole and the other was 15 feet from the hole. I went over there and tried that for an hour and I couldn't get one on the green. He's got great hands and he's very athletically gifted, but he also works very hard. His short game has improved in the last 10 years. He's better now and he gets up and down a higher percentage of the time and he's even better at the harder shots. We practice a lot. He is not a lazy man. He's had some problems the last couple years because of psoriatic arthritis. He's taken some medication that has made it more difficult for him to practice as much as he wants to. But he's actually getting that under control and this year I think he's started hitting it better than he's ever hit and I know his short game is better, we measured that. So he's really doing great. If he can get his putting going, even at his age -- he's not old but he's in his 40s -- I think he's going to have the year of his career.