Dave Pelz Golf Teacher: Adding Science to the Art of the Short Game

Anyone who says golf isn't rocket science doesn't know Dave Pelz.

Golf's preeminent short-game guru started out as a NASA researcher in the 1960s, working his way up to senior scientist on projects including the Explorer satellite program. He used his aeronautical know-how – and the physics degree he earned at Indiana University – to take golf into unexplored territory.

You might even call him the “human launch monitor.”

That wouldn't be entirely accurate, though. Rather than focus on the more ballistic-intensive parts of golf (e.g. driving and iron play), Pelz turned his space-age measurement gauges to the fine details of putting, chipping and pitching. Why? It was a personal thing. Pelz believed his own lack of short-game prowess kept him from making it onto the PGA Tour.

His research and teaching have certainly helped others fulfill their dreams. Pelz's prize pupils include Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh; 10 of his students have combined to with 19 major championships. Pelz also runs a highly successful chain of golf schools with sites across the U.S., plus a couple of international outposts.

But it's his incredibly detailed short-game study that's had the biggest impact. Golf Digest named Pelz one of the game's 25 most influential instructors of the 20th century – and he's almost certainly the most innovative.

Pelz started experimenting with golf in 1970 but didn't leave NASA until 1976, when he began making custom-fitted clubs and training aids. He conducted an extensive PGA Tour research project in 1977, which proved to be a watershed moment. Among other findings, Pelz concluded that 60 percent of all shots occur within 100 yards of the hole. His findings also showed a direct correlation between short-game proficiency and money winnings – a connection few would argue today.

In fact, Pelz's preferred term for the short game is the “scoring game.”

Like anyone who shakes up the status quo, Pelz has his detractors. Some say his science-based approach is too rigid for the more feel-oriented aspects of the short game. Others question the relevance of his findings, such as Pelz's assertion that the ideal force for striking any given putt will produce a pace to roll the ball 17 inches past the cup.

Critics aside, no one challenges Pelz's status as a pioneer, his thoroughness or his passion for teaching golf. He's written numerous books, including the best-selling Short Game Bible, produced instructional DVDs, written regularly for GOLF Magazine since 1983, and appeared thousands of times on the Golf Channel.

In fact, one of Pelz's most memorable moments came while filming a Golf Channel segment at Wisconsin's Whistling Straits, on the eve of the 2004 PGA Championship. In the course of a demonstration, Pelz holed an astounding 206-foot putt, later declared by “Ripley's Believe It Or Not” as the longest putt ever made on TV.

A fitting distinction for a man who pushed the boundaries of golf well beyond their previous limits.

Famous students: Mickelson, Vijay Singh, Tom Kite, Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen, Colin Montgomerie, Mike Weir, Steve Elkington

Core philosophy: Driven by statistics, Pelz wields reams of data from surveys and studies to pinpoint areas where golfers can achieve the quickest, most meaningful improvement. He contends that 80 percent of strokes lost to par occur within 100 yards of the cup. He also believes that anyone can become a short-game ace, regardless of their talent level.

Pelz's scoring principles revolve around a few key tenets, including these observations:

  • The putter's face angle at impact, not the stroke path, determines a putt's direction.
  • The more greens you miss in regulation, the more wedges you should carry. That means four wedges for most golfers.
  • Golfers should control the distance of less-than-full wedge shots (i.e. a three-quarter wedge) by varying the length of the backswing, not the force of the swing.
  • For pitch shots, the ball should be positioned directly opposite the center of ankles.

Classic Pelz-style tip: The “cut-lob” shot is a valuable weapon for a short pitch with little green between you and the flag. Here's how it's executed:

  • Using a sand or lob wedge, line up a few paces left of the target and open the blade until it points slightly right of the target.
  • Play the ball in the middle of your stance.
  • Make a short but aggressive swing and follow through to a full finish.

The ball will pop up high and land gently, with little to no roll.

Dave Pelz Adding Science to Art of the Short Game

Dave Pelz Adding Science to Art of the Short Game

If you follow the world of golf, you likely are familiar with the name Dave Pelz.. Pelz has been a fixture in the golf instruction world for many years, and he is also known for his work with Phil Mickelson, among other pros. Most notably, Dave Pelz is recognized for his considerable contributions to the short game. Two of his books – “Dave Pelz's Short Game Bible” and “Dave Pelz's Putting Bible” – are among the best-selling golf instruction books of all-time. Not everyone agrees with the style of teaching that Pelz promotes, but one thing is for certain – he has left a lasting impression on the game.

Not just a teacher who works with the top players in the world, Pelz has long connected with the average player through both his books and his short game 'schools'. Pelz has certainly reached an incredible number of golfers with his teaching throughout the years, and that number continues to rise to this day. Once employed at NASA, Pelz applied his advanced knowledge of physics to the game of golf and developed a style of teaching that was revolutionary in its time. Rather than relying on feel and touch in the short game, the method that Pelz promotes is grounded firmly in science.

Taking a scientific approach to the short game is a bit controversial, at least in golf circles. Some golf teachers believe that the short game should be all about developing a feel for the club, while leaving the scientific approach for the full swing when the club is moving at a much faster speed. However, it is obvious based on the success that Pelz has experienced over his career that plenty of players have connected with his methods. While thinking about the short game from a scientific perspective is not likely to 'hit home' for every golfer trying to improve on and around the greens, the ideas that Pelz has promoted throughout his career have helped millions of golfers shave strokes off their game.

In the content below, we are going to look at some of the main concepts that have been promoted by Dave Pelz in his books and other teachings. Should you put these ideas into practice in your own game? That is up to you. Only you know your game well enough to decide exactly which tips and techniques are going to benefit you in the long run. However, there is nothing lost from gathering as much information as possible before making such a decision. By learning more about the Pelz way of hitting short game shots, you will open your eyes and your mind to a school of thought that you perhaps had not previously considered. With that knowledge now part of the way you see the short game, you can decide exactly how you are going to proceed.

All of the instruction and ideas below are based on a right handed golfer. If you happen to play left handed, please take a moment to reverse the directions as necessary.

The Clock Face

The Clock Face

One of the most-popular methods that is used by Pelz to teach the wedge game is known as the clock face. Basically, Pelz encourages golfers to imagine that they are swinging along the face of a clock, and they are going to control distance by varying how far back they swing the club. So, for example, swinging the left arm back to '9:00' will produce a shot of a certain distance with a specific club, and swinging that same club back to '10:00' will produce a slightly longer shot. By practicing and memorizing how far your shots travel when using different spots on the clock face, you can drill down your distance control and hit the ball close time after time. At least, that is the theory. Does it actually work? For some golfers, yes, it certainly does. For others, not so much.

When you think about it, this is a great way to approach what has always been a challenging part of the game for amateur players. Amateur golfers traditionally struggle to control their distances on less-than-full wedge shots, so breaking the shot down into specific swing lengths makes plenty of sense. If you can consistently swing the club the appropriate distance, while also picking the right club for the shot, you should be able to knock the ball close. A shot that is usually quite intimidating for the average golfer can suddenly become a source of confidence when this method is practiced and applied.

By adding a variety of wedges into your clock face plan, you can have a wide array of distances at your disposal. This is sometimes known as the '3:4' method, where the '3' represents the number of different swings you have available, and the '4' represents the wedges you have available. With three different swing lengths and four different clubs to pick from, you will have a total of 12 shots available when you need to pitch the ball onto the green. While there will inevitably be some overlap in terms of distance within this setup, you should find that you have no trouble picking out an appropriate combination of swing and club once you have spent some time practicing with this technique.

So, where can this plan go wrong? For one thing, some players will have difficulty executing a quality swing when thinking in such a technical manner. If you are thinking specifically about swinging the club back a certain distance, it may be hard to maintain a smooth rhythm in order to achieve a quality strike. It is crucial to hit the ball cleanly on any shot, but that point is especially critical when playing from around the green. Players who struggle to make good contact while taking the Pelz approach might be better off to think more about the feel and tempo of their swing rather than trying to mechanically swing the club a very specific distance back and through.

One other issue with taking this approach is the varied course conditions that you will face throughout a round. Sure, you might know how far the ball will travel when you swing back to 9:00 with a sand wedge on flat ground, but what happens to that shot when you are on an upslope? Or maybe a downslope? What happens when the course is wet, or extremely dry? There are nearly endless variables involved in playing the game of golf, which is why some players prefer to leave it up to feel rather than trying to calculate every last yard.

In the end, the best thing you can do for your own game is simply to try out this method for yourself. Some golfers will find that it works beautifully, while others will have trouble getting it to work at all. Take some time to set up near a practice chipping green at your local course and give this method a fair try. Work on it for a few practice sessions in a row to allow yourself time to get comfortable, and only make a judgment one way or another after you have thoroughly tested this approach.

Focus on Putter Face Angle

Focus on Putter Face Angle

Moving from around the greens to on them, this next point is another one of the key elements of Pelz teaching style. When putting, Pelz encourages his players to be concerned mostly with the face angle of the putter as it makes contact with the ball. Of course, this does make plenty of sense – after all, the ball is largely going to head in the direction that is indicated by the face of the putter. While the path of the putter head through impact is going to have a little bit of impact as well, most of the line of your putt is going to be determined by where the face is pointing when the ball is contacted.

This is a bit of a departure from a lot of modern golf instruction, as many golf pros teach their players to pay attention to the swinging the putter head rather than the direction of the face. In many ways, this is a semantic debate, but it is still one that it important for the performance that you are able to achieve on the greens in your own game. For some players, it will make a lot of sense to focus on the face of the putter as they make a stroke. After all, that is the main determining factor in where the ball is going to go, so why not make it your focus? If you try this kind of putting during an upcoming practice session, you may find that you start to see more of your putts drop in almost immediately.

On the other hand, however, there are those that believe it is best to focus on the stroke itself because the face angle will take care of itself when a quality stroke is made. If you swing the putter back and through with a nice rhythm, and you are using a good grip and a solid address position, you might not have anything to worry about in terms of face angle. The face should come back to square nicely at impact as long as the rest of your stroke is holding up its end of the bargain.

There is no real debate on the factual accuracy of Pelz teaching on this part of putting – it is pretty much universally agreed that the face angle of the putter is going to determine where the ball goes when it comes off of the club. However, that doesn't necessarily settle things, as there is still plenty of argument to be had about whether or not you should think about face angle as you stroke the putt. Is it going to help you execute the shot more effectively if you focus on face angle, or if you think about things like tempo and timing. Again on this point, that is an individual decision that will have to be made on a person by person basis.

Should you decide that you are interested in putting while thinking about the face angle of the putter, the best thing to do would be to get started with some short putts. Set yourself up with a few short putts on the practice green and think only about the angle of the face while making your stroke. Pay attention to where the club is pointed at address, and keep it pointed there while moving back and through. Pelz promotes a method of putting that features very little face rotation during the stroke – which plays right into this line of thinking. You might feel a bit uncomfortable with this putting style at first, but stick with it until you start to see some improved results.

Most likely, the real test for this technique will come when you leave the practice green and head out on to the course. Putting is notorious for being far more difficult on the course than it is on the practice green, as there is something about the pressure you feel during a round that makes it much harder to control your speed and hit your line. If this putting method does not hold up on the course for you, feel free to go back to your old style. However, be sure to give it enough time to work, and invest yourself fully in the process. Improving at golf requires keeping an open mind, even when it comes to changing something as fundamental as the way you think about the putting stroke.

Carrying Four Wedges

Carrying Four Wedges

Another one of the well-known Pelz philosophies is the thought that most golfers should carry four wedges during a round of golf. As you know, you are only allowed to have 14 total clubs in your bag during a round, and some of those spots are already spoken for. Obviously, you know you are going to have a putter and a driver, so immediately you are down to 12 available spots. Nearly every player is going to want to have a three wood as well, so now you have 11 spaces available in your bag to fill with the rest of your set. Should you decide to fill 4 of those 11 open spots with wedges? While that is ultimately up to you to decide, there is a good case to be made for taking that approach.

Basically, deciding which clubs to put in your bag is a matter of give and take. When you add an additional wedge, for example, you are likely going to lose a hybrid or fairway wood in the process. Is the extra wedge worth not having the availability of an additional long club? For many people, the answer will be yes. The majority of shots played during a round of golf are short game shots, so having as many 'weapons' available in that part of the game as possible makes a lot of sense. Also, most long shots can be played successfully with two or three different clubs depending the swing you make and the shot shape you use, so missing out on one of your long clubs isn't the end of the world.

If you do decide to go with four wedges, the layout of that portion of your set will likely look like this – a pitching wedge, gap wedge, sand wedge, and lob wedge. A standard pitching wedge comes in at around 48 degrees of loft, so that is the starting point for your wedge collection. From there, you could add a gap wedge at 52 degrees, a sand wedge at 55 or 56, and a lob wedge that is anywhere from 60 to 64 degrees. As you can see, this is a nice even spread of lofts that should allow you to produce many different types of shots from around the green.

Of course, these wedges are going to be used for more than just chips and pitch shots, which another advantage of having so many of them available. You are going to find plenty of chances to make full swings from the fairway with your wedges, and having four in your bag means you will have four unique full swing yardages that you can cover. If you hit your pitching wedge 120 yards with a full swing, for example, you will probably hit your gap wedge around 100, your sand wedge around 85, and your lob wedge around 70. Being able to make full swings that cover those various yardages is a huge help, and it will likely set you up for plenty of birdie chances throughout the day. If you didn't have as many wedges in your bag, you would be forced to make more half-swings – and those kinds of shots are always more difficult, especially for the amateur player.

You don't have to decide to carry four wedges, but it is a concept that you should at least give some strong consideration. With that fourth wedge in the bag, you might find that the short game suddenly feels quite a bit easier – and it is the short game that is going to ultimately be responsible for leading you to lower scores.

An Overall Approach

An Overall Approach

Generally speaking, golfers fall into one of two camps – there are technical players, and there are feel players. Neither one is right or wrong, as it is certainly possible to play good golf when coming at the game from either direction. However, it is smart to understand what kind of player you are so you can tailor the methods and techniques you use to fit in with your style. If you try to 'mix and match' between being a feel golfer and a technical golfer, you might find yourself stuck in-between – and that is never a good place to be.

Without a doubt, Dave Pelz is a golf teacher who is going to appeal to the technical, analytical player. If you are someone who enjoying thinking about golf, and even life in general, from a technical perspective, you will likely relate nicely to the teachings of Dave Pelz. If, on the other hand, you are a free thinker and a person who relies more on instinct than on planning, you may not want to go too far down the Pelz path. Again, there is no right or wrong in this case, it is just a matter of what works best for you and what makes you feel comfortable.

As you have been reading the content above, what was your natural reaction? Did you think that it sounds fun and interesting to learn your wedge clock face system, or do you think those kinds of shots should be left up to natural feel? Your first impression is often what you should go with, as it will reveal how you truly feel about a given approach or method. Don't try to talk yourself into being something that you aren't – instead, trust yourself and go in a direction with your game that you think will lead to the best possible outcome.

There is no doubt that Dave Pelz is a prominent figure in the golf world, and his teaching has already helped millions of people get more out of the game. At the same time, his teaching is not for everyone. Some people will be turned off by the analytical style, and they will have a hard time connecting the dots in order to play better golf. And that is okay. For those who do work well with a scientific approach to the game, the things that Pelz teaches can help to quickly lower scores and have more fun on the course. No matter what, at the end of the day, you need to be taking your game in a direction that you feel comfortable with, and that you are going to be willing to see through to the end.