How Pelz and Phil saved strokes at Sawgrass

How Pelz and Phil saved strokes at Sawgrass

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Much of Pelz's advice has to do with the makeup of Mickelson's bag for a particular course.
Chris O'Meara/AP

The 10th hole at TPC Sawgrass is a bitch.

The
sandpit snaking along
the left side of its skinny
fairway is so deep that
three in-ground ladders are provided
for access and egress. A lattice of slash
pines and Sabal palms barricades the
far end, so if you lose it left on this left-bending
424-yard par-4, the path for
your second shot is clear: sideways.

Taking your medicine is the only way
to survive Sawgrass.

In the third round of the 2007 Players
Championship, Phil Mickelson sliced
his tee ball high through the humid air
and into that brutish bunker. He stood
six under par, a shot out of the lead,
and had 171 yards to the pin. Would
he go for it? No way, was the prevailing
opinion, because Gamblin’ Phil,
whose willingness to try low-percentage shots
is legendary, had been playing a
very cerebral game at Sawgrass. His
newfound willingness to hit controlled,
three-quarter shots even had a name:
Pelz irons.

“I was quite surprised that he came
to me [in December 2003] because he is
perceived to have one of the best short
games in the world,” says Dave Pelz, a
former scientist who made his bones
with data-driven books such as Dave
Pelz’s Putting Bible
. “But Phil said he
wanted to save a quarter of a shot per
round in the majors, and asked if I could
do that. Well, I’ve never seen anyone I
couldn’t improve.”

The pretournament
walkabouts
(sometimes several of them) that
Mickelson
and Pelz conduct at Augusta
National,
TPC Sawgrass and the sites of
the U.S. and British opens and the PGA
Championship are hard work — caddie
Jim (Bones) MacKay recalls Phil’s striking
putts on a green somewhere for an
hour and a half — and a ton of fun.

“I’ve
never laughed as much as when I walk
around a course with Phil,” says Pelz.
“He has a great sense of humor and a
really active mind. He’s probably the
brightest guy I’ve ever worked with. He
asks me as many questions about planets
and the cosmos as about golf.

“It’s not as if I’m teaching him to hit
a flop shot,” Pelz cautions. “I’m simply
trying to get him more prepared.
We’re not learning new shots, but discovering
what shots to work on and
with which clubs. He used to carry
a four-wood exclusively, but based
on the second shots to the par-5s at
Sawgrass, he’ll probably have two hybrids.”

Mickelson brings five wedges
to tournaments and takes three into
battle. His spatulalike 64-degree always
makes the cut.

Early in their relationship, as they
strolled the world’s greatest courses,
Pelz probed his pupil regarding his
go-for-it style.

“It helps me win,” Phil said.

“It also helps you lose,” the instructor
replied.

Their Sawgrass battle plan for
2007 required more work than normal
because the entirety of Pete Dye’s
masterpiece had been scraped and
resurfaced.

Ten inches of sand replaced
topsoil for improved drainage in roughs
and fairways, and temperature and
moisture-controlling Sub-Air systems
were installed beneath each green.

“They lasered the greens, but nothing
is ever exactly the same,” says Pelz, and
the redone surfaces were a tad slower
and didn’t break as much as previously.

As Mickelson relearned the Sawgrass
greens, Pelz wondered about the rough
to the left of the 4th fairway. Was it still
as thick as a mohair sweater? It was.

Would the left side of the 11th green
hold like it used to? Phil hit shots to
find out. And so on.

Between his proselytizing about
the inadvisability of aggressive shots
to conservative targets and his preaching
that disastrous scores are not
caused by shots that get into trouble
but instead by dumb shots from trouble,
Pelz recited ShotLink data. He might
have mentioned, for example, that the 10th fairway was historically the hardest
to hit on the back nine; that pros
in the Players recorded more bogeys
at 10 than on any hole on the back;
and that if you don’t hit the fairway
there — and especially if you hit into the
bunker — you should forget about trying
to make a birdie, because it almost
never happens.


But in the third round of the ’07
Players, Mickelson never considered
playing out to the fairway on 10, and he only half-listened as Bones recited
yardages to the second-safest destination,
the greenside bunker. Phil had
perceived an opening high in the palms
and pines, and he envisioned a flight
path that would miss the trees, fade,
clear the greenside bunker and grip
the plateau green. He took his normal
lusty swing with a seven-iron, and his
ball rolled dead 30 feet, one inch from
the hole. The crowd went nuts, and
Lefty eventually tapped in for par. Phil and Bones had a good laugh.

“Sorry,”
Mickelson said to his caddie. “I simply
didn’t feel like telling you what I
was going to do.”

Now there’s a bronze
plaque in the bunker commemorating
Phil’s feat.

“I don’t like risks like that,” Pelz
says. “He still only made par. I believe
in taking a chance only when you can
save a shot.” The instructor pauses.
“I haven’t gotten him to play more
conservatively.”

Dave’s Data: Sawgrass Trouble Spots in 2007
No. 1 Longest 30% of drives found fairway only
60% of time
No. 4 Only one in 12 players who missed fairway
made birdie
No. 5 Average player lost two thirds of a stroke
every time he missed fairway
No. 6 Twenty players three-putted green—highest
total on front nine
No. 7 Ranked first in double bogeys or worse
No. 8 Highest in putts per hole
No. 12 Average score for drives
in rough was almost a
half-stroke higher than
for drives in fairway
No. 14 Players had only a 5.4% chance
of making birdie if they missed
fairway
No. 17 Only one of six saved par from bunker
No. 18 Only 31.6% hit green in regulation


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