The house where the short-game guru Dave Pelz lives, in the foothills west of Austin, Tex., is a golf geek’s Shangri-La, with practice grounds designed to fit its owner’s fantasies. Just outside his back door, Pelz can take dead aim at faithful reproductions of his favorite targets: the 12th green at Augusta, fronted by a creek and an alabaster bunker; the 17th at Sawgrass, ringed by water; and the 14th at Pebble Beach, with its tiny tabletop, as forgiving as the roof of a VW Bug.
When Pelz and his wife, JoAnn, moved in last year, she chose the china, but he had final say on the elaborate landscape, which also features tributes to the 17th at Pebble, the 13th at Augusta and the Road Hole at St. Andrews, along with enough practice greens, skewed at different angles, to keep Ben Crenshaw endlessly entertained.
The short-game facility extends across two-acres of SYNLawn synthetic turf that never requires watering or mowing, and that features a special patent-pending underlayment that allows his putting surfaces to receive shots like real bent- and Bermuda grass greens.
On any given morning, when he isn’t writing books, or tweaking a new gadget, or working with Phil Mickelson in the run-up to a major, Pelz can be found at his rear doorstep, in his trademark bucket hat, with a bag of balls beside him, fine-tuning the array of precision shots on which he’s made his name and a three-decade-plus career.
The Tour pro D.A. Weibring, a Pelz protégé and friend, describes the property as “Pelz’s playground”—a phrase the man himself dismisses.
“It’s more like a laboratory,” Pelz says. “A place for pushing forward with my work.”
It takes a different kind of person to regard a golfer’s dreamscape as a research center, but then Pelz has always had a stats-jammed mind of his own. “Not everything Dave has said has been embraced right away,” says 19-time Tour winner Tom Kite, who worked with Pelz in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “But people eventually came around to seeing that what he said was right. When you look at the long term, you realize the immense impact that he’s had.”
Since the mid 1970s, when he left a job as a NASA research scientist to immerse himself in golf research, Pelz has unearthed answers in the data while others were still digging for them in the dirt. The truth that serious players hold today—that you drive for show, but chip and pitch for dough—was far from self-evident when Pelz got started. The term itself—“short game”—didn’t even exist. By treating every course as a laboratory, and every round as part of a grand experiment, Pelz not only showed that short shots deserve their own classification—he proved that they’re what matter most.
“Joe Blow golfer may still go out and smack drivers on the range for an hour and think he’s accomplishing something,” says Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open winner-turned-ESPN analyst, and one of the first Tour pros to embrace Pelz’s teachings. “But throughout the game, there’s a deeper understanding of how golf is really played. Much of the credit for that goes to Dave Pelz.”
Pelz has evolved from a one-man operation, conducting esoteric studies from the far edge of the fairways, into an institution—an author and inventor, a global speaker and instructor, with short-game schools in this country and abroad. Now 72, he has penned six books, holds 17 golf-related patents and has fathered inventions of immense impact, among them the 60- and 64- degree wedge and the two-ball putter, one of the all-time best-selling clubs of any kind.
Pelz’s insights have influenced Tour pros and amateurs alike. His stable of students, with 19 majors under their collective belts, has included Vijay Singh, Paul Azinger, Lee Janzen, Michelle Wie, and, most famously, Mickelson, who turned to Pelz for help in late 2003, months before he won his first Masters. “I was 0-for-43 in majors before I met him, and I’ve won four, plus a Players Championship, since,” Mickelson says. “That says it all about him in my book.”
Pitching balls in his backyard, Pelz cuts the profile of a man in his natural setting. But like the space probes that he once designed for NASA, he has traveled a long way to get where he is today.
Pelz was born in Indiana, raised in Kentucky and grew to 6 feet 5. He became a standout athlete, earning a four-year golf scholarship to Indiana University. His Big Ten career was sound but unspectacular, notable mostly for the record he compiled against an Ohio State star named Jack Nicklaus: zero wins and 22 losses. Enough golfers not named Nicklaus also beat him that, by graduation, Pelz had reconsidered his Tour ambitions.
With a degree in physics, Pelz landed a job at NASA, where he built mass spectrometers, particle-measuring devices that were instrumental to research into other planets’ atmospheres. Interesting work. But the more he tinkered in a lab, the more he daydreamed of the course. “I realized I was a golfer who loved physics,” Pelz says, “rather than a physicist who loved golf.”
Where college taught him the nuts and bolts of science, NASA schooled him in the rigors of sound research. One subject of inquiry consumed him: How were some players with unimpressive swings winning on golf’s biggest stages?
Take 1969 Masters champ George Archer, a subpar ballstriker by Tour standards. Or Gay Brewer, whose swing looked a little bit like a helicopter in a death spiral. Somehow, both won green jackets. “It occurred to me,” Pelz says, “that if I couldn’t tell Gene Littler”—who had a famously silky swing—“from Gay Brewer, then I really didn’t understand the game.”