Dave Pelz, tell us exactly what Phil Mickelson’s Pelz swing is?

Nasa scientist has worked with hundreds of tour professionals through the decades

They are a combination of relentlessly enquiring minds - Dave Pelz and Phil Mickelson. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

They are a combination of relentlessly enquiring minds - Dave Pelz and Phil Mickelson. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

 

It was the microphones. It was the microphones and the fact that the commentators had the wit to whisht up for a bit. It was the microphones and the commentators and the fact that history was happening and nobody watching wanted to miss so much as a single syllable of it. It was all these things.

One way or the other, as Phil Mickelson closed out the PGA Championship last month, the audience was able to overhear multiple conversations between him and his caddy (and brother) Tim. Which meant that we could hear them repeatedly refer to hitting a Pelz draw or a Pelz fade or a Pelz swing.

In the days that followed, a few of the golf websites in the US ran articles on exactly what a Pelz swing is. So, Dave Pelz, since it is named after you, answer us one question - is this a new thing? Some new swing thought Mickelson has happened upon late in life?

“Not new at all!” replies the smiley 81-year-old, laughing down a Zoom line from his home in Austin, Texas. “We started working together in January of 2004. So we’re talking we’re in our 17th year working together. If you’ve been to a Pelz clinic, you know that we have a three-quarters swing.

“I found many years ago that if pros took the club back to what looks like a nine o’clock position, if that arm is horizontal at the top of your backswing and the club is close to vertical, the ball will go about three-quarters of however far you can hit it if you hit it full.

“And in our first year of working together, Phil really latched on to that swing. He loves it, because he can repeat it. He has learned the distance of every one of those clubs. He calls it the Pelz swing, because I taught it to him. He has five wedges in his bag and he has a Pelz distance for all five wedges.

“I mean, he’s been saying this now for 17 years. But as the microphones get better, they’re closer - a directional microphone can be 300 yards down the fairway and you can point it at a guy and hear pretty well. So you hear him say it now more clearly.”

Pelz found himself completely drained by watching Mickelson win his sixth major. He has worked with hundreds of tour professionals down through the decades and while Tom Kite was his first star pupil, Mickelson’s short game wizardry is what will endure long after we’re all in the ground.

They are a combination of relentlessly enquiring minds - Pelz the Nasa scientist whose life’s work has been applying physics to golf, Mickelson the know-all golfer who would convince you he could design a space rocket as long as somebody told him he couldn’t.

When they first coupled up, Mickelson was 33 years old, insanely talented but still without a major. Pelz was 64, a stalwart of golf coaching and a relentless innovator but generally presumed to have his best days behind him.

“Phil called me and said, ‘Can you help me lower my scores by one stroke in a major?’ That’s all he was looking for, a quarter of a stroke per round. And I said, ‘No one’s ever asked me that before. Well let’s see - are you holing every wedge shot that you hit when you pitch onto the greens?’ He said, ‘No, of course not.’ And I said, ‘Well, then you can improve. I guess that gives us something to work on.’

“In January 2004, he’d never taken a partial swing. He had decelerated into wedges to control their destiny. That’s really hard to do, especially when your muscles are stronger than normal in tournament play and they’re filled with adrenaline. For you to hit a half-shot at half-speed, slowing down into impact - that’s really very difficult. And so this Pelz backswing as he calls it, the less-than-full backswing, is really an advantage when you learn how to do it repeatedly.”

Results

Even before last month, the results were stupendous. Mickelson went from being one of the best players never to have won a major to putting together one of the greatest careers the game has ever known. His second PGA Championship was wholly unexpected, a sixth major to move him alongside Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino in the all-time list. Though Pelz wouldn’t dream of saying he thought he’d win, he wasn’t surprised to see him play well. Something good had been coming.

“He’s been in a search for distance for three years,” Pelz says. “He’s changed his body. He’s changed his workouts. He’s changed his forearms. He is a stronger man now than he was at 30, which is unusual for most males. And in the search for distance, he’s added 35 yards to his drive. Now that’s pretty substantial.

The Pelz Scoring School has been franchised mostly across America but one of his (surprisingly) few overseas locations has been in Killeen Castle in Co Meath. Photograph: Alan Betson
The Pelz Scoring School has been franchised mostly across America but one of his (surprisingly) few overseas locations has been in Killeen Castle in Co Meath. Photograph: Alan Betson

“But it changed his game dramatically. For three years, he hasn’t been as sharp on his short game. He’s got a 35 yards longer with his driver and in the last year it has got straighter. That’s all Phil himself and Andrew [GETSON].

“I don’t have anything to do with his power swing or any of his full swings. Now they’re getting a little more control of the driver. He’s now working on his irons again, he’s getting them dialled in. He’s getting his wedges dialled in sharp and he’s been working on his wedge play. This has only happened in the last few months but he’s now ready to play the game again.”

It was, he points out with some pride, the 22nd major won by a Pelz student. And he doesn’t rule out there being more. It’s probably a bit much to imagine Mickelson closing out the career Grand Slam next week at Torrey Pines but you never know.

The game is as wild and untameable to Pelz now as it ever was. There’s never any telling when and where it can be brought to heel. All you can do is find your groove, apply the right principles and never stop trying to get better at it.

“Why is it frustrating? Well, because it’s golf. You get frustrated with it, I get frustrated with it, Phil gets frustrated. We get frustrated because we want the best. We want wine but we only want to spend beer money - especially when it comes to practice.

“We only want to practice when it suits us. I mean, here you are working for a living - why aren’t you out practicing right now? You could be better if you practiced more.

“But practicing doesn’t make perfect. That’s one thing you have to learn. If you practice poorly, if you have poor practice habits and you practice a poor golf swing, you will be a poor golfer. Very consistently, very poor. And if you have a really good swing, and you have really good practice sessions, and you get good feedback, and you measure, you will improve.

“Phil Mickelson measures how far he hits every wedge. Whether it’s a good swing or a bad swing, he knows how far it went. Now, how many golfers do that? If you do that, an hour a day for 40 years, you get pretty good at it.”

Franchised

The Pelz Scoring School has been franchised mostly across America but one of his (surprisingly) few overseas locations has been in Killeen Castle in Co Meath. Set up in 2008, it came about when a couple of Irish golfers went to his school in Florida and loved it so much that they badgered him to set one up in Ireland.

“I’m the golf dummy of our family. My wife runs the company, she’s the CEO. And she said, ‘Well, now wait a minute, there’s more to it than that - you can’t just set up a school. We don’t have people in Ireland that teach our short game skills. We have career short game instructors.

“That’s all they do. They teach the short game and putting. And they learn it and they study it and they practice it themselves. And they’re really, really the finest in the world at teaching the short game. So we said we would have to have schools in Ireland, we’d have to have Irish professionals come here.”

So that’s what they did. They trained up some coaches, scouted some locations and settled on the course designed by his old college golf rival Jack Nicklaus. Well, rival is maybe the wrong word - Peltz played Nicklaus 22 times in college and lost every match. Nonetheless, the Pelz school has been on the go in Meath these 13 years. One-day clinics, three-day clinics, all preaching the one thing no golfer practices enough.

“It takes a lot of practice,” he laughs. “These are not easy things to accomplish. And I don’t want to minimise them here by saying, ‘Oh, yeah, you can do it, just apply yourself.’ A lot of people devote their lives to it.

“I’ve had people in my schools that say, ‘Mr Pelz, I’m here because I’ve got the chipping yips. I was really doing good but I started playing so much. I lost my marriage, I lost my family, lost my kids. And then I just kept doing it. I lost my job. I started drinking because it helped the frustration because I wasn’t getting as good as I wanted.’

“People have ruined their lives trying to get better in golf. And I don’t want to enable you to do that! I want you to practice as smartly as intelligently and as much as you can, within the limits of your life. Don’t ruin your life. Make it better to enjoy it and don’t let frustration get to you. If you have unrealistic expectations, you’re probably going to get frustrated. Golf is a fun game.”

Of all the lessons he’s ever given, it’s the hardest one to keep in mind.

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