He stands at six foot, five, yet it is all about the short game with Dave Pelz. The American coach, arguably the finest short game and putting instructor in golf and Phil Mickelson’s short-game guru, is addressing UK professionals at the Golf Show in Harrogate later this month, and he gave an exclusive interview to Robin Barwick
Many people believe Phil Mickelson has the best short game in golf. You know his secrets better than anyone, so how does he do it?
I don’t want to talk about specific things Phil and I have been working on, and there is not a whole lot that is new about that anyway, but I will tell you that Phil’s short game is not God-given or an innate ability. He works on it very hard and he practices a lot. That is why I don’t think anyone can compete with Phil in terms of their short game. He has the best short game I have ever seen, but he has earned it. When Phil works hard his short game is great, but when he doesn’t work quite as hard or if he is not feeling great, then his short game is not quite as good as it can be. He does still hit bad shots, like we all do.
I am coming up to the end of my 11th year working with Phil. There are a lot of incredible athletes on the PGA Tour, and a number of golfers are better athletes than Phil, but in terms of the short game, he is number one in my book.
Most of the golfing world has just been gripped by watching Mickelson and co. compete under the utmost pressure in the Ryder Cup. What advice do you give golfers about performing under pressure?
The main thing is to practice in a competitive mode so you experience pressure. Play games that end with a win or loss, so that as you near the end of the game, the pressure increases. I don’t think many people in the whole world have done things right under pressure the first few times.
One of our greatest players ever, Tom Watson, had a tremendous reputation as a choker when he was young because he was so good, got into the lead a number of times, but then he would blow it. They called him a choker and said he couldn’t play under pressure. That was just the learning process though, that all great players go through. Watson went through it and become one of the great pressure players of all time.
I can’t imagine anyone dealing with more pressure than playing head to head against Jack Nicklaus, to be tied with him, see Nicklaus shoot 65-66 against you on the weekend, and to beat him by one shot. That was incredible, what Watson achieved in the Open at Turnberry in 1977 [Tied for the lead after 36 holes, Watson shot 65-65 over the final two rounds].
Watson was labeled a choker but it was anything but the truth.
I know what it feels like to be under so much pressure that it is hard to breathe. Mental excitement and emotions can get so high that the automatic functions of the body stop being automatic, and you have to think about breathing and you have to tell yourself to go ahead and breathe and to take big breaths and to walk slowly, and you need to make sure your emotions don’t completely control what your body is doing.
This is the great challenge of Ryder Cup golf, because it is such an emotional event and the players’ emotions start effecting the way they play, and that is what they need to fight against. The golfers need to play with their emotions, rather than in spite of them or against them.
What has been the situation when you have felt so much pressure it was hard to breathe?
For me, I felt that kind of pressure playing in the US Amateur. In many ways, the amateur who is competing in the club championship faces the same pressure as Ryder Cup golfers. The magnitude of pressure is in the mind of the golfer. Golfers in the club championship put themselves under incredible pressure. If amateurs play in competition they will see, feel and experience a level of pressure that is similar to what the players go through in the Ryder Cup.
Tour golfers have played in so many competitive situations that playing under pressure is not new to them, but it is just that playing for your country in the Ryder Cup against other great players, allows these golfers to put additional pressure on themselves, that they only feel once every two years at the most. That is why they all love it. The greatest thrill in sports is to play well when you know you are under tremendous pressure.
How did you handle that kind of pressure in the US Amateur?
I lost in the second round at the 21st hole. I played very competitively and I shot what was for me a good score, but the other guy shot one better. In my amateur days I did not know how to get better as well as I do now. I could have practiced all the hours of the day and I would not have become a great player because I had significant flaws in my game that I didn’t know how to fix. I didn’t learn how to fix them until way later in my career.
Now I know how to fix those faults, but I am not trying to be a great player anymore. I am trying to make a contribution to the game through teaching and by trying to help others to become great players. That is where I see my challenges now and that is what I get excited about. That is why I get so emotional about the Ryder Cup, because I work with some of the players and I really enjoy watching them compete at the game’s highest level. I also find it draining!
Is it true that as an amateur you played and lost to Jack Nicklaus 22 times?
Yes, it’s true. It was over a four-year college career, including several tournaments that were outside college golf. I lived in Youngstown, Ohio at the time, and Jack lived in Cleveland, Ohio, and we played in the state amateurs and then Jack went to Ohio State and I went to Indiana, so we played each other several times every year for four years, particularly as we were both on four-year golf scholarships. Jack was a better player. Jack did not win because he was lucky or because I choked; it was because he was a better player.
Did that knock your confidence as an aspiring golfer?
It effected me. I loved the game, and I went to college on a scholarship with the ambition of playing on the PGA Tour, but I was cleary not good enough. Jack was not the only golfer who beat me or the only golfer who could have knocked my confidence, but I was not even close to Jack’s level. I was not even one of the top few players among the ‘Big 10’ colleges. There were players all over the country who were better than me. I was no Phil Mickelson, who was a phenomenon in college and won tournament after tournament. I was not of that calibre.
What makes me a better teacher is trying to work out why I was not a better player. There is a lot involved and you need to find out specifically what it is with your swing, your body, your technique, your posture that is holding you back, and you need to figure out how to fix it.
If I could have fixed my problems back then I would have been a much better player, but at the time I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, and why I was missing putts, or why I was not chipping the ball closer to the hole, or why I drove the ball crooked. I didn’t understand my own game well enough to enable myself to practice intelligently and to improve.
I worked hard enough to be a good player, but I practiced the wrong things and I practiced the wrong way. My practice did not do my game any good. It was what I now call ‘poor practice’, which made me consistently poor as a golfer. I became permanently poor in several areas of the game. So in my schools today, I try to get people to understand that practicing the wrong things does not help their game and does not improve their scores. You have got to practice the right things, the right way, so you get the right kind of feedback as to whether you are practicing correctly. That is what makes any golfer a better player.
Will this theme come into your presentations to club professionals at Harrogate this month?
Absolutely. At Harrogate I am making a putting presentation and a short-game presentation, and I will start both by talking about a number of principles that are fundamental to those areas. I will share some of the positives and negatives we encounter in our golf schools, and try to shed some light on how golfers should practice and on how they should not practice.
Then I will talk about how teaching professionals can influence their students after their lessons. It is one thing to get a golfer to perform an action when you are there with them on the practice tee, but it is another thing for those golfers to go away and convert that tuition into lower scores on the golf course. These golfers need to be able to make a better swing when they only have one chance to play a shot. The first try always counts on the golf course and that is one of the great challenges of the game of golf.
What does your partnership with Cleveland entail?
I am a brand ambassador for Cleveland wedges and putters. Last year they came to me and we talked and I tested their wedges and putters and I liked them. So I agreed to be an ambassador, and so I do clinics and outings for them, and we talk about what is good for the game and how Cleveland can help both amateurs and pros play better golf. They are wonderful people and I enjoy working with them.
I have watched some of the Pelz Corner drills you filmed with Cleveland. Were they filmed at your own facility in Texas?
Yes, those videos were filmed in my back yard in Spicewood, Texas. It is my home and office. I also have an office three miles away, but I get more done at home and it is a better use of my time, whether it is teaching, learning, researching or testing. It is a fabulous facility, and I believe it is the best back yard any golfer could have.