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Golfing with the Guru

Dave Pelz's Short Game Schools Help Golfers Put Their Shots on the Green, and Into the Cup
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 1)

Standing on the 18th tee of your favorite golf course, you survey the fairway stretching into the distance, and you smile. You've had one of those rare, great days on the links, when everything has clicked. Your ball striking has been crisp. You've managed to avoid hitting out-of-bounds. And, miraculously, you've only three-putted a single green. All that stands between you and the first sub-90 round of your life is a 400-yard par-4. Life is good.

You stripe a magnificent drive into the short grass. You poke a crisp iron up near the dance floor, so close to the promised land you can smell a par. With two well-played shots you've hit your ball 400 yards. Time to get up and down. Time to shoot in the 80s.

But from the edge of the green, you chunk one chip, skull another one and, demoralized, three-putt from 20 feet. Two strokes to go 400 yards; five more strokes to hole out. Instead of recording your best round ever, you are left with a bitter memory of what might have been. Disconsolate, you storm off the course, pausing only to briefly consider dumping your clubs in the trash can on the way out.

Sound vaguely familiar?

Approximately two out of every three shots you play on a golf course will be made with 60 yards of the flag, including putts, which account for between 40 and 50 percent of your score. Yet most of us aren't very good from 60 yards and in. We'd rather spend the majority of our practice time on the driving range, blasting balls into the stratosphere with our oversized, graphite-shafted, titanium bazookas. We'd rather hit a bucketful of epic shots, watching them sail high and far into a beckoning net, than become a master of the short game. To most golfers, it's more fun to feel the power of nailing the sweet spot than it is dribbling hundreds of eight-foot chips on a bumpy practice green.

That's why most of us post scores that resemble those of a National Basketball Association game gone into overtime.

For the few among us who aspire not to the Herculean lengths of a John Daly, but, rather, the surgical precision of a Corey Pavin, merely setting aside 20 minutes a week for practice on "touch shots" doesn't accomplish anything--except a sore back--if you don't know how to practice.

That is why the Dave Pelz Short Game School may be the most powerful learning tool in the rapidly growing field of golf education. In three very full days, golfers of all abilities discover how to putt, chip, pitch, blast from the sand and, most importantly, practice effectively. They learn to be their own best teacher.

You may be familiar with the name Dave Pelz. A regular contributor to Golf magazine and the author of the instructional tome, Putt Like The Pros, Pelz is generally regarded as the world's foremost expert on the short game: all manners of shots that occur within 60 yards of the flag. A former NASA research scientist with an obsession for golf, Pelz has spent much of his adult life applying the same scientific principles he employed on the space program to putting and chipping. Dozens of celebrated golfers--Tom Kite, Lee Janzen and Peter Jacobsen, to name a few--credit Pelz with teaching them the mysteries of the short game, supplying them with the kind of powerful competitive advantage one enjoys when one knows more than the opposition. Pelz is the world's foremost short game guru.

Like David Leadbetter and Jim Flick, other celebrity golf teachers generally unavailable to the everyday hacker, Pelz rarely gives lessons to amateurs. (Several times a year, though, he conducts premium-priced "signature" sessions.) Usually, Pelz's distilled wisdom is disseminated in clinics taught by his personally trained instructors, who impart the guru's lessons with assiduous accuracy. Attending a Dave Pelz Short Game School is like hearing the gospel from a substitute preacher: The voice is different, but you still get the message.

To carry the religious metaphor a bit further, when it comes to the art of the short game, I should admit that I am something of a convert. Last year, after attending a Dave Pelz Short Game one-day clinic--they're offered periodically in most major American cities--I went from being an erratic putter--sometimes great, sometimes horrendous--to being a consistently very good putter. How good? With practice--and a thorough re-reading of Pelz's book on putting--I qualified for the Compaq World Putting Championships by Dave Pelz, where I competed against players such as Beth Daniel, Payne Stewart and Brad Faxon for a $250,000 first prize and the title "best putter on earth." Though I didn't win, I came away from the experience convinced that Pelz's training really works.

Whereas the one-day clinic is a quick gloss, a compendium, of Pelz's encyclopedic short game knowledge, his three-day schools are an exhaustive exploration into everything you always wanted to know about getting the ball in the hole. You are treated to all manners of classroom demonstrations, game-improving gadgetry, video analyses and theoretical lectures. But most important, you are compelled to hit thousands of golf balls less than 60 yards.

The Dave Pelz Short Game School is conducted on both U.S. coasts, year-round. The Ranch at PGA West, in La Quinta, California, is home to the school's western campus, while the flagship location is in Florida, at the famous Boca Raton Resort and Club, the luxurious and impeccably tasteful hotel and golf course situated between Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. Sam Snead and Tommy Armour were once club professionals at Boca Raton; these days, the name Dave Pelz draws duffers of all types to the golf course, where, adjacent to the picturesque 17th hole, the Dave Pelz Short Game School has three specially designed greens tailored to teaching all manners of little golf shots.

My class in Boca Raton is an almost perfect heterogeneous sampling of the golf-playing public: split evenly between women and men, low- and high-handicappers, couples on vacation and spouses on the loose, young bucks and retirees, even a Ladies Professional Golf Association touring veteran trying to get her playing card back. Our common bond is a desire to get better at a game that normally resists such efforts.

Our lead instructor, Jim Chorniewy, a former mini-tour player, is possibly the only man in the world to teach at a short game school and compete as a finalist in the National Long Drive Championship. "If I can't teach you to hit it high and soft," he jokes, "at least I can show you how to rip it down the middle." Chorniewy stresses that knowledge will come first and results will follow. "We're not here to make you great putters or great wedge players. We're here to make you your own best instructor."

In pursuit of that elusive goal, the first two hours of the school are dedicated to observation: while the students demonstrate their facility--or lack thereof--with wedges and putters, Chorniewy and his colleagues videotape the mayhem, rating what they see and constructing a game plan for the remainder of the week. You feel like an Olympic athlete undergoing a battery of performance tests, albeit an Olympic athlete who has somehow wandered into the wrong sport.

After the diagnostics, we are treated to a comprehensive theory session, reviewing much of Pelz's meticulous research. Among the more interesting revelations: the face angle (how square your putter face is at impact) will influence the ball about 450 percent more than the path (direction you swing) of your putter; the "lumpy doughnut" effect around the hole, which is caused by putting traffic, means you should try to roll all your putts 17 inches past the hole; and the worst place to practice putting is on a practice putting green.

The Dave Pelz Short Game School assumes its students possess intelligence and inquisitiveness, not just faulty golf swings. For that reason, before you are taught how to do anything correctly, you are taught why what you are about to learn is correct. Thus, before my class is unleashed upon the practice range to work on 30-yard "flop" shots, we are briefed on the theory of what Pelz calls the finesse swing. Unlike the typical power swing, where you try to create maximum torque between your shoulders and hips--think big body turn--the finesse swing synchronizes the lower and upper body. The result, Pelz's theory goes, is a fluid swinging motion, as opposed to a hitting motion. The key? Acceleration. The instructors constantly stress a shorter backswing to cut down on deceleration, the nemesis of all golf swings.

Still, even if you swing the club as beautifully as Steve Elkington or with as much touch as Raymond Floyd, if you don't position the ball properly in your stance, you're making the game much harder than it has to be. Correct ball position is the Rosetta Stoneof the short game. Of all the information one digests at the Dave Pelz Short Game School, where to place the golf ball may be the most powerful revelation of all.

After an hour of mildly successful attempts at putting theory into practice, we are dismissed for the day. Sensing the toll that day one normally takes on neophyte short-gamers, our instructors remind us that the bathrooms are stocked with plenty of Band-aids and Tylenol.

Day two begins with practice on tricky little 15-yard lobs, the ones Phil Mickelson makes look so effortless. This is the kind of testy golf shot that requires a precise, fluid motion that will hold up under pressure. Indeed, every stroke the Pelz school teaches--pitching, chipping, putting--is designed to withstand the rigors of competition, whether you're a PGA Tour star trying to win the U.S. Open or a weekend hacker trying to beat your buddies out of five bucks.

Perhaps no stroke in golf is more susceptible to pressure than the putting stroke. That is why Pelz stresses a simple, easily repeated pre-shot routine. You can devise your own, but whether you use the routine Pelz recommends or not, make sure you always run through the five or six steps you've rehearsed. That's the easy part.

After your routine, you have to actually make the stroke. That's the hard part.

While there are countless shapes and sizes of putters and nearly as many ways of gripping them, Pelz believes there is but one correct swing: in a rhythmic pendulum motion, straight back and straight through. (The school uses a custom-designed robot, "Perfy," to demonstrate what the perfect putting stroke should look like.) To this end our instructors have us practice with long "broomstick" putters, which is like putting with the second hand of a grandfather clock. The idea is to strike the ball as squarely as possible, without any hand or wrist manipulation, à la Chi Chi Rodriguez. Again, our instructors emphasize that, no matter how talented you are, if you don't place the ball properly in your stance, you are playing with a significant handicap. After the Dave Pelz Short Game School, you'll never wonder again.

Before escorting the class to the wedge range, Chorniewy and his colleagues share an astounding statistic: even the best putters in the world, touring professionals, make only 50 percent of the six-footers they attempt. But they make nearly 90 percent of their three-footers. The moral? Develop an accurate wedge game and you'll make your golfing life a lot more enjoyable.

After an alternately humiliating and exhilarating session in the sand, which, handled properly, can be the easiest place on the golf course from which to hit--ball position, ball position--we are subjected to a computer video analysis of our swing. Watching yourself on tape making faulty strokes is like being forced to look at photographs of yourself sporting an old hairstyle. But no pain, no gain. The tape doesn't lie; it just tells some truths you might not want to hear.

Our final day begins with a review of sand play and an indoor review of putting mechanics, including the application of several infernal devices Pelz invented to groove a proper putting stroke. Normally, it's almost impossible to shank a putt. But when you make a bad motion with one of Pelz's teaching clips attached to your blade, the ball skids away at comical right angles. Unless you have an indefatigable sense of humor, you start putting correctly in a hurry.

With a newfound mastery of putting mechanics, the class moves to the practice green to get a lesson on that other great golfing mystery: reading putts. Our teachers set up a sample putt and ask us to estimate how much break we would need to play, assuming the ball was rolled at a perfect 17-inches-past-the-hole speed. The average guess: 20 inches. The actual amount of break: 47 inches. The lesson: almost everybody underreads their putts and subconsciously pulls or pushes their strokes to compensate.

The three-day school concludes with intensive reviews of chipping, putting and pitching, in which our instructors challenge us to a variety of closest-to-the-pin games. The results of our training are obvious. Shots that we would have been pleased to get within 10 feet of the hole two days earlier are now coming to rest within three feet--if not at the bottom of the cup. Even more telling is our final video analysis, where Chorniewy projects images of our first- and third-day swings side-by-side, like before-and-after photos of weight loss endorsers. The before pictures look like golfers who are predestined to chunk, skull and chili-dip. The after pictures look like golfers who are certain to get it close, close enough to get up-and-down when it counts.

Contributing editor Michael Konik, Cigar Aficionado's gambling columnist, writes the golf column for Delta Air Lines SKY magazine.

The Dave Pelz Short Game School costs between $1,925 and $2,815, depending on dates and locations. Pelz's "signature" sessions cost about $3,500. Call (800) 833-7370 for more information.

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