‘IT AIN'T ROCKET SCIENCE ’
That may be a glib throwaway one-liner...but it’s true. When it comes to improving all aspects of the short-game, we are dealing in relatively simple issues of technique and basic repetition to hone a skill – not nuclear physics!
Trust me on this. In a former life I was a NASA scientist with a fascination for sending rockets into the upper atmospheres of the earth. Then one day I realised I was a golfer who loved physics, rather than a physicist who loved golf. I gave up my day job and have dedicated the last 35 years of my career to intensive study of the short game. Utilising my experience in data collection and analysis, I have studied performance data from thousands of golfers – amateurs and pros alike – and used that information to identify the common denominators to success.
The first of the Dave Pelz Short Game Schools opened in 1982 and I am delighted to say that the most recent has now opened in the UK, at The Grove in Hertfordshire (we also have a facility at Killeen Castle in Ireland). What I love most about these schools is the fact that while the majority of amateur golfers can never hope to strike the ball like a tour player, there’s no reason why they cannot develop the skills necessary to have a professional short game. And that’s exactly what we aim to deliver.
Happily I haven’t given up altogether on the extra terrestrial. My most celebrated student, Phil Mickleson, is so intrigued by the solar system that we spend hours talking about it – and in return I get to pick his brains to learn about the thoughts and feelings one of golf’s genius short-game exponents relies on around the green. It’s been a successful partnership; when Phil sought out my help in 2003 he was 0-for-43 in the majors. He asked me straight: “If I hire you and do as you say, can you help me shave a quarter of a stroke per round in major championships?’ Confident in my years of research, I told him what I believe is true to this day: there isn’t a golfer on the planet who couldn’t save at least one shot a round by using my ideas.
People think of Phil as this phenomenally natural talent, which he obviously is. But what tends to get overlooked is the fact that he is also one of the hardest workers in golf. Away from a tournament he practises these skill sets more than you can imagine – and I’ve been lucky enough to be around him, to watch and to learn from his artistry. When we discuss the nuances to a specific technique, we get to a better understanding of how golfers can go out and do things better. So let me share with you a crash course of ‘must-have’ elements that I know can improve the key aspects your short-game – basic chipping, pitching and putting – the very next time you play.
BASIC CHIPPING? GET THE BALL WELL BACK...
The No.1 fault that I see among everyday amateurs relates to the ball position – the most fundamental of set-up elements. While the majority of regular golfers are aware of the need to play the ball back in the stance, very few play it far enough back to be truly effective in terms of honing a good chipping technique.
The inset photo above illustrates a typical ball position for a club player; I want to see it significantly further back than this. Look at the main image here. With both of my feet turned in towards the target, this is where I want to see the ball position – and adjusting your set-up accordingly will immediately help you to play these key scoring shots consistently.
Standing slightly open to the target, and with your feet comfortably close together, simply flare your toes to the left to assume the position you see here. Now, you want the ball to be played outside of the right foot as you settle into posture. Why? Because here you cannot possibly hit the shot fat. Catching the ball a little too cleanly is OK. You can live with that. Hitting the shot fat is the worst of all sins, and it occurs as a result of wanting to scoop the ball into the air.
That is simply not allowed to happen when you play the ball just to the outside of your right ankle. The bottom of the arc is way forward in relation to the ball, and so you catch it as the club is making its descent. Nipping the ball before just bruising the turf gives you the strike that enables you to play these shots with control.
FOR CONSISTENCY, STROKE IS ALL ABOUT THE ARMS AND SHOULDERS
Once you are comfortable with the set-up position, feet and toes angled to the target, as per my example, this is a technique you can quickly apply to just about every club in the bag. And the beauty of it is, the set-up positively encourages you to make a sound stroke. With the ball back and your body angled to the left of the target, the key is to develop a technique in which the arms and shoulders do all the work, while the hands and wrists are essentially passive.
The set-up position determines the nature of impact, and in no time at all you will enjoy hitting down on the back of the ball, catching it cleanly before just bruising the turf, and playing a shot you can control.
There’s a lot of analysis on TV when we see tour players reach for a sand iron and produce all sorts of magic, spinning the ball to stop it dramatically next to the cup. But remember, these guys are playing every day of the week and have exceptional feel and control. They use loft to negotiate ridges and terraces in the green, playing what is actually a high-tariff shot to get the ball close. You do not have the luxury of time to practice like they do. The higher your handicap, the faster you need the ball on the green, running like a putt. So go out and experiment with a span of clubs, all the way from a 6-iron to sand wedge, and enjoy the versatility of this key skill.
ACCELERATION IS THE KEY TO A SOLID STRIKE AND BETTER DISTANCE CONTROL
One of the interesting things my research has showed up is that all golfers – whether amateurs or pros – rarely miss the green long. In fact, only 5% of all approach shots go past the target. 95% are short. So in preparing the basis of my teaching strategy on the short game I focus on exactly this type of shot, a basic pitching up the green towards the hole.
“I am a big believer in using a
Most amateurs never practice this. Instead they practice little chip shots around the green and then move back to 40-, 50- and 60-yard wedge shots. But the numbers do not lie. If you can get up and down from this key distance you will save shots and shoot lower scores.
Moving on to the technique itself, the key in all aspects of the short game is that you accelerate smoothly through impact. The problem most amateurs have to deal with is that they typically make too long a backswing for a given shot and decelerate into the ball. The key lesson here, focusing first of all on this 14 yard landing distance, is that you learn to build sound technique with a shorter backswing and accelerate through. Any tendency to decelerate will compromise the strike – and your control of the trajectory. So when you next go out to practise, I want you to work on this drill, limiting yourself to a backswing that sees the clubhaft get to parallel (main image) before accelerating smoothly into the ball and on to a finish in which the shaft is working towards the vertical (far right).
For me, using a 54 degree wedge, the ratio of backswing to through-swing you see illustrated above produces a shot that carries 14 yards. I practice this all the time to maintain that accuracy with the 54 degree wedge, and it’s the club I then reach for out on the course. You have to go out and experiment to find the club and the tempo that gives you this 14 yard stock shot. I would suggest taking all of your wedges and hitting shots with this controlled swing to better understand the flight and the subsequent roll out you achieve. That is valuable information.
As you work further away from the hole, I want you then to keep in mind this concept of making a controlled, relatively short backswing and accelerating to a longer, balanced finish. Those are characteristics you see in all great wedge players. It’s a principle of control that enables you to accelerate through the ball with commitment in the knowledge you have the distance ‘dialled in’ matching that club with that swing. The ball position I advocate in the wedge game is such that the centre of your swing is always beyond the ball – and, as such, the maximum velocity point is after impact, too.
This is the secret to more solid and consistent ball striking: you strike the ball as you are accelerating to your maximum velocity point. Now, in driving, that’s instinctive. But as I mentioned a little earlier, in chipping and pitching there is a tendency to make a long backswing and decelerate through the ball. Which is why you need to go out and think about this as you practice. More specifics on the ball position and the way you can manipulate the clubface angle to play different shots overleaf.
UNDERSTANDING BALL POSITION FOR BETTER PITCHING TECHNIQUE
And so a little more detail on finding the right ball position, which is fundamental to developing a solid pitching technique. The ball has to be in the right place – and the key is that you adjust ball position to suit good technique. Not the other way around.
Just as we observe in chipping, the tendency for most amateurs is to play the ball too far forward in their stance for a regular pitch shot. I guess there’s an element of wanting to lift the ball into the air, even with the most lofted clubs in the bag. But there is absolutely no need to do that – and you will enjoy much better ball striking if you follow this simple routine to identifying the right ball position.
Take a look at the accompanying images. In the first frame I have the ball in the middle of my feet, a ‘square’ stance, the ball in line with the clubshaft that I have placed centrally between my heels. From here, all I have done is flared out my left foot to create the situation you see in frame 2. I have not moved my body at all, and yet the ball now appears to have moved back in my stance.
This is an illusion. It has not moved an inch in relation to the left foot. It is centred, just as it was in frame 1. And this is exactly where I want you to play the ball for all pitch shots. Here, the bottom of the swing arc is ahead of the ball, as I’m indicating with my finger in the first of the photographs below. If I want to play a higher shot I simply open the clubface, which increases the effective loft but also produces a shot that will tend to drift from left to right – so you have to aim a little left of your target to compensate. (Similarly, if you want to play a lower, running shot, you might toe-in the face a little, which would have the effect of lowering trajectory and producing right to-left draw spin.)
If you are one of those golfers guilty of playing the ball too far forward, and are prone to hitting these shots fat, go out and give this a try. I promise that if you spend 30 minutes hitting wedge shots with your feet and ball sharing this relationship you will find that you strike down and through the ball, and enjoy a terrific sense of control over trajectory and spin.
INSTANT FEEDBACK KEEPS YOUR STROKE – AND MINDSET – POSITIVE
There are three critical elements you have to master to become a good putter: green reading, starting lines and speed control. The first of those skills boils down to experience – there’s an art to reading the line of a putt that you only develop over time. But there is a lot you can do to improve your ability to start the ball on your chosen line and control the speed of the roll (and these are the key areas tour players spend most of their time on).
Face angle at impact is the key to accuracy and consistency. In other words, you need to recognise a square putter face at address and develop a stroke that returns that square face to the ball at impact.
This is an area of research that has always fascinated me, and the ‘O-Ball’ is one in a long line of putting aids that I have developed to help a golfer perfect his alignment and return the putter- face squarely at impact.
Quite simply, the O-Ball provides the most valuable information you could wish for – instant feedback as to the quality of your putting stroke.
“The 3 foot circle drill
remains by far and away
the most effective for
anyone wanting to become
a better putter from this
critical distance. Place the
This is the tour players’ bread and butter.
And whether you use an O-Ball or simply use a marker pen to create a line on your ball, repeatedly setting up to a straight four-foot putt, recognising the square alignment of the face, and seeing that line roll end over end on its way into the hole is a massive boost for your confidence.
Good posture is vital. My advice is to create the angle from the hips that allows the arms to hang freely so they swing with your hands vertically below the shoulders. With knees flexed, the weight balanced on the balls of the feet, the body ‘flow lines’ (i.e. the lines of the feet, knees, hips and shoulders) should all run parallel to the aimline, the eyes directly above it. Now you’re ready to knock ‘em in.