Josh Ritchie
Thursday, March 12, 2009

MY BOYHOOD BUDDIES, MIKE AND MIKE, were the kind of little rascals who shot spit-balls at teachers. They skipped A-block history, slept through Spanish and showed less pulse in biology than a dissected frog.

Nearly half a lifetime later, both have somehow become successful. But they still struggle with the fundamentals: writing, 'rithmetic and reading greens. Their sand and wedge games are even worse. Watching Little Mike hit lob shots is like watching Shaq shoot free throws. Big Mike flails in greenside bunkers like a sexually frustrated orangutan.

Like most average students — and average golfers — neither Mike had ever sketched a plan for self-improvement. Until this winter, that is, when they traded in their dunce caps for sun visors and flew to Florida for a three-day Dave Pelz Scoring Game School.

A poor pupil myself, I opted to join them. Childhood rivalries run deep, and I couldn't let those bozos get the leading edge. The Pelz school, which opened in 1985, now has eight locations around the country, all of them born from a simple premise: most golfers go about the game bass-ackwards. We rush off to the range, pound drivers till our palms bleed, then light out for the course, fully expecting to shoot lower scores.

Proof that we rarely do isn't merely anecdotal. It's a scientific truth proven by Pelz, a former NASA engineer who has approached the subject with the single-minded focus of a...NASA engineer. Having spent the past three decades tracking golfers and compiling statistics, Pelz has concluded that 60 to 65 percent of all shots occur within 100 yards of the hole, and that 80 percent of strokes lost to par take place from within that same distance. Drive for show; chip, pitch and putt for dough.

Recite this adage to the members of your Sunday foursome and they'll nod sagely, which isn't to say they'll ever change their ways. Pelz's research shows that 80 percent of practice time is spent on the power game.

Or, as Big Mike put it, outlining his philosophy: "Me see ball. Me hit ball. Far."

It was 8 a.m., and we were sitting in our classroom at the Country Club course, one of two 18-hole layouts at the Boca Raton Resort & Club (see sidebar). Six other students had enrolled for the long weekend, including four friends from Chicago with Da Bears accents and short games as volatile as Mike Ditka on 'roids. Their high handicaps represented one end of a spectrum in a program that attracts a range of talent.

The Pelz pedagogy draws on enough numbers to make your head spin like a wayward Srixon, but our trio of Pelz-trained instructors made the information easy to digest, and insisted we have fun. "You're going to leave here better than you were," said Trent Reeves, our lead instructor. But first, he added, we were going to have a good time, filming our swings and razzing one another in the video room.

At this, Big Mike grinned. Aside from downing Bloody Marys, mocking playing partners is his favorite aspect of the game. We split up into groups and spent the next hour-plus on the practice grounds, rotating among stations: sand shots, chip shots, pitches, putts. Under close scrutiny, and with the cameras rolling, our weak short games grew feebler still.

By the end of the first day, after eight intense hours of theory and execution, a picture had emerged. It wasn't pretty. Years of self-instruction had doomed both Mikes and me to the same bad habits that befall so many golfers: our short game motions were miniature replicas of our full swings, what Pelz describes as "throttled-down versions" of our power games.

On delicate shots, we brought our clubs back too far, then tried to finesse outcome through muscle control and deceleration. Sometimes it worked. But mostly it explained why blasts from the bunker remained in the bunker and soft shots over water wound up wet.

"Interesting stuff," I muttered.

Big Mike nodded. For the first time in his years of formal education, he wasn't snoozing or shooting spitballs.

"Yeah," he said, "but I think I need a drink."

When we rose with the roosters the next morning, my head was swimming with statistics and the Mikes' were pounding with hangovers (they had "decompressed" hours earlier with a case or so of Heineken).

"Who here thinks he's the best putter in the world?" asked Marc Albert, a Pelz instructor and Rocco Mediate look-alike, when we ambled into class shortly after sunrise.

Little Mike raised his hand, and for once he was right.

Attitude, Albert explained, is fundamental to the art of putting. You have to believe you can roll your rock. The game's finest flat-stickers — Ben Crenshaw and Brad Faxon, for example — step up to 40-footers convinced they're going to drain them. The typical amateur, by contrast, approaches that same distance trying not to three-jack, and when he does, berates himself for being the worst putter in the world.

Both viewpoints, it turns out, are grounded in delusion. Pelz's research shows that Tour pros sink just more than half of their six-footers, only slightly higher than the average schlub. From 12 feet, the pro conversion rate dips to a paltry 20 percent.

Big Mike scratched his head, like a slow kid contemplating Proust. "You mean," he said, "that I putt just like the pros?"

Not exactly, Albert said. Pros putt better. But they also chip and pitch with great precision, and that's the difference. Compared to amateurs, they knock a ton of short shots to a makeable distance — an eight-foot radius around the cup that Pelz calls the "Golden Eight."

Bottom line: learn to stuff more wedges, and you'll sink more putts. Therein lies one of the secrets to lower scores.

With that in mind, we grabbed our lofted clubs and set out for another day of practice. We'd been given swing keys to work on: shorter backswings, softer hands, more lower body action, all driving forward to a full finish, tummy toward the target, hands held high. These simple tips had already led to progress. Little Mike's wedge action now looked less like a violent spasm and more like a smooth, voluntary motion. Judging from his sand play, Big Mike's inner ape had suddenly evolved.

I felt fluid, too. Lobbing shots at a 40-yard target, I marveled at the result: five pinseekers in a row. The Pelz school, we decided, was the antithesis of high school calculus: we understood it, and we didn't have to wonder if we'd ever use the stuff.

The third and final day kicked off in front of the video camera: the bookend to a "before" and "after" shoot. Screened side by side, the videos were stunning, especially Little Mike's. His backswing on short wedge shots, which once whipped behind his body like a fly rod, now fell into position, and he rotated to a full, relaxed finish. Big Mike and I didn't look too shabby either.

We spent a few more hours on drills and theory — lag putting, reading greens, efficient practice routines — and passed a final exam by landing a short wedge shot in the center of a net. Our instructors shook our hands. Class dismissed.

Clutching Pelz school binders packed with personalized feedback, we hustled to the golf course. On the first hole, a short dogleg, I got up and down from a greenside bunker. On the par-3 fifth, Little Mike chipped in. We looked at one another and burst out laughing. It was like a scene from a corny infomercial.

Still, old habits die hard, and even a Pelz graduate can't expect perfection. On our ninth and final hole Big Mike bombed his tee shot to within 50 yards of the green. Flexing his muscles as he strode up the fairway, he grabbed a lob wedge, wielded it wildly in flagrant violation of the Pelzian method, and chili-dipped his approach into the drink.

Big Mike hung his head, and I shook mine sadly.

A big drive, like a mind, is a terrible thing to waste.

Class Act

\nThe historic Boca Raton Resort & Club has attracted golfers since the heydays of Sam Snead and Tommy Armour, both of whom worked as club pros here. But there's nothing old-fashioned about the facilities, which include a spa, three fitness centers, half a mile of private beach and two golf courses: the marquee Country Club course, which features the Pelz school and an island green on No. 18, and the older and shorter Resort Course. Visit bocaresort.com or call 888-491-2622.

Note: Dave Pelz is Golf Magazine's technical and short-game consultant.

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