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.