In 1976, Pelz resigned from NASA and focused his scientific acumen on the PGA Tour. For the next three years, notepad in hand, he bounced from one event to another, jotting down the results of every shot he saw. His empirical approach to golf, in a pre-ShotLink era when the game was ruled by received wisdom, made Pelz an oddball. It also produced results.
That the findings hardly come across as earthshaking today are testament to the revolution they inspired. Pelz’s data showed that the short game—shots of 100 yards or less—was 60 to 65 percent of golf, a majority share that also happened to be the weakest part of most players’ games. From beyond 100 yards, the average Tour pro missed his target by a 7 percent margin (a 14-yard error, for example, on a 200-yard shot). From inside 100 yards, though, that figure jumped to 16 to 20 percent. For the game’s best players, straying right or left on wedges wasn’t the problem. It was distance control. “A guy who tugged a 60-yard shot 10 yards off line would hang his head in disgust,” Pelz says. “But he’d fly one over the flagstick, 20 yards long, and be thinking he’d hit a great shot.”
The logical conclusions his research led to amounted to a challenge to the old world order.
Before Pelz, players carried 1-irons, 2-irons, 3-irons—an arsenal of clubs to cover an array of long-distance increments—and only one club to handle everything from 100 yards and in. Pelz recommended filling that gap. Many Tour pros heeded his counsel, including Kite. In 1981, Kite became one of the first Tour pros to carry a 60-degree wedge and went on to lead the money list and win the Vardon Trophy for low-scoring average.
As Pelz’s influence seeped through the pro ranks, his reputation spread to well-heeled amateurs. In 1982, he opened his first short-game school, in Abilene, Tex., fetching up to $1,500 a head for a full-day session with a foursome. But instruction wasn’t his passion. “I was trying to learn the game,” Pelz says, “not trying to teach it.”
To support his research, Pelz focused on equipment design. He made a good inventor but a lousy businessman. Among his financial missteps was the two-ball putter, the design he dreamed up in 1986, only to sell the rights a decade-plus later, to Callaway Golf, for $250,000. It seemed like a good deal at the time, but in the years since, Callaway has sold 5 million of the putters.
The bottom line could be better. But it could also be worse. “Dave Pelz” is an integrated brand that extends not only to his books, clinics and schools but also to training aides, equipment and apparel. Even the family’s Bedlington terrier, PEDO, falls under the company umbrella; his capitalized name is an acronym for Pelz Executive Dog Officer.
Like his restless dog, Pelz rarely sits still, often grinding on his research between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. The results fill thousands of pages in books, magazines and scientific journals, and while all his theories are grounded in science, his approach is not as rigid as his background suggests. “He’s a scientist, but it’s not his way or the highway,” Weibring says. “He’ll say, ‘This is what my research has told me. How does it work for you?’ ”
Case in point is the Pelz-Mickelson partnership, a study in contrasts that pairs golf’s top science guy with its ultimate feel player. When they first teamed up, in 2003, Mickelson had a rep as a short-game magician whose tricks failed him in majors. Pelz being Pelz put those impressions to an objective test.
The result was something of a myth-buster moment. Mickelson, it turned out, while spectacularly good on spectacular shots, was surprisingly ordinary at ordinary ones. Leave him short-sided with a flop shot over water, and no one was better. But the prospect of a more straightforward pitch turned Mickelson into a middling player, with a conversion rate in the Tour average of 55 to 65 percent. “People think of Phil as this freakish natural talent,” Pelz says. “The truth is that he’s a coordinated guy, but he still has to practice. The reason he was ordinary at these ordinary shots is that he paid virtually no attention to them.”
Mickelson started working on simple chips and pitches and now boasts a conversion rate north of 80 percent, among the highest on Tour, Pelz says. Course management is another matter, one on which the two butt heads. Pelz cringes when he thinks of Mickelson’s famed 6-iron from the pine straw on the 13th hole in the 2010 Masters. As he sees it, no shot is worth taking if a player can’t pull it off nine times out of 10.
Mickelson takes a different tack, Pelz says. “When we started working together, Phil believed that if he was capable of hitting a shot, he should try it, no matter what the odds were. Since then, he’s moved more toward a 50 percent guy. If he thinks he can pull it off half the time, he’s going to do it. That’s still too risky in my book, but that’s Phil. I’m not trying to turn him into Dave Pelz.”
At the same time, Pelz’s star pupil has rubbed off on him, or so it seemed one morning in the Texas foothills, as Pelz stood in his yard, aiming at his homage to Augusta’s 12th. The shot he faced was testy: an awkward 40-yarder over a creek to a pin tucked right. The Pelzian play—that is, the percentage play—was to the center. But Pelz was feeling frisky. Lob wedge in hand, he waggled, swung. The ball settled two feet from the stick.
“Not the smart shot,” Pelz said, smiling. “But every now and then you’ve got to have some fun.”