2003: The Skilled Player - All about rhythm

By Brian Hewitt

They have a much tougher job than we have,” Dave Pelz says. “That’s the nice thing about the short game. In a three-day school with amateurs, we can make some significant changes because most people can physically do what we’re trying to do. But that’s not at all true with the full swing when your student is standing there saying, ‘I want to drive it like Tiger.’ That’s a problem.”

Pelz is probably the world’s best-known authority on the short game. His sympathies are with instructors who teach the full swing to players who expect more than their physical limitations will allow. Chipping and putting, Pelz says, is different that way. To a much larger extent, the short game is a one-size-fits-all proposition. Especially putting. “There’s nothing in putting that has anything to do with size or strength or quickness of your body,” Pelz says.

He is fascinated by the prodigious distances that 2001 Rookie of the Year Charles Howell III hits the golf ball off the tee even though he is only 5-11 and 155 pounds. “He has those quick-twitch muscles,” Pelz says. “It’s not that he’s that strong. It’s that he can move from the top of his backswing to the end of his follow-through in an absolute blur.

“And,” Pelz says, pausing for emphasis, “that does nothing but hurt him in the short game.”

Pelz’ point is not so much that Howell has a bad short game. He does not. More to the point is that Howell’s physical attributes don’t necessarily help him in the short game.

Which begs the questions: Are there physical workout exercises that will help the short game? Is there a way to teach feel? Can anybody putt like Ben Crenshaw used to?

“I don’t think you can teach feel in an exercise,” Pelz says. “But I do think you can teach rhythm in exercises. And without rhythm you can’t develop feel. Everybody has a body rhythm. Everybody has a personality. The faster you walk, the faster you talk, the faster you should swing a golf club. Nick Price has to always swing fairly fast or he won’t be feeling natural. Phil Mickelson swings slow.

“Most golfers try to use their muscles to hit the ball a certain hardness. They think if it’s short, they didn’t hit it hard enough. If it’s long, they think they hit it too hard. I try to remove that thought from all my players. I say if you leave it short, you didn’t make a big-enough swing or you were too slow. If you hit it too hard, you made too large a swing or you turned too fast.

“Charles Howell has got to learn to make half swings. He’s got to learn to hit his wedge shots from 30 and 40 and 50 and 60 and 70 yards all with the same rhythm.”

For the full swing, Golfweek has reported how instructors such as Mike Malaska have designated specific exercises for players with specific body types or flexibilities. For the short game, the limitations are less. But how to develop rhythm is not obvious. Rhythm is more of a concept than something concrete.

But once you have determined the correct rhythm for you, Pelz says, “it’s a matter of learning what size of swing to make for a given distance. And that takes field practice. To be a good short game player, you’ve got to make a practice swing and you’ve got to know from experience, from feel, from past visions, from all the past muscle memory you’ve had at that rhythm and at that swing size that ball’s going 63 yards. The great players do practice swings in wedges just like the great putters do a practice stroke.”

The practice stroke in putting, Pelz says, is a kind of art form. The tone of his voice changes perceptibly when he talks about the pre-shot putting routine of Loren Roberts, one of the game’s great putters.

“Loren Roberts makes a practice stroke and he knows the ball’s going to roll the right distance. He doesn’t know how much it’s going to break and he doesn’t know whether he’s going to make it or not. But he knows it’s not going that far by and it’s not going that far short. It’s going to be somewhere between a foot and 2 feet past the hole. He knows it. He watches his practice stroke, he feels it, he looks at the putt and he knows. That’s feel, that’s touch. And you don’t teach that in an exercise.”

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