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Van Pelt finds short-game guru in Rodgers

You can pour the foundation for success at the practice range, the putting green, the manufacturer’s testing facility or even inside the fitness trailer.

Then again, you can settle into a booth and get things accomplished during a lengthy, late-night session at Denny’s.

That’s right, Denny’s. For three hours, no less.

“The only place to eat in town,” said Phil Rodgers, who concedes he was there not for the Grand Slams and side orders of bacon and sausage. Nope, Bo Van Pelt had arranged the meeting to talk about an Achilles: His work around the greens.

“We talked about the short game,” Van Pelt said. “He asked me a million questions. Then we spent eight or nine hours the next two days at Rich Harvest Farms (outside of Chicago).”

It was the summer of 2009 and Van Pelt, then in his eighth PGA Tour campaign, had come to a crossroads of sorts. He was hitting the ball too well not to succeed, but he wasn’t succeeding because he wasn’t scoring anywhere near where he should have been. Finally, at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Van Pelt crossed paths with two longtime friends whose short games he respected: Jeff Gove and Jeff Brehaut.

“Brehaut told me he worked with Phil Rodgers,” Van Pelt said. “I always admired how they chipped the ball and their bunker play around the greens.”

Van Pelt’s association with “Old School Phil,” as he calls him, was a superficial one. “I had had Cobra make me some Phil Rodgers wedges. I didn’t know him, but I figured I might want to.”

During one of the many rain delays at Bethpage, Van Pelt got Rodgers’ number from Brehaut. A few days later he made the call and it was agreed that they would meet July 19, the Sunday night following the conclusion of the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee.

It’s at this point that the story takes a bizarre twist, because Van Pelt won that Milwaukee tournament. He had played since 1999 without winning, now in his 229th tournament, Van Pelt cashed in, the same day he was to meet with a heralded instructor who was going to help him break through with a win.

Crazy game, huh?

Yes, sir, only Van Pelt was still convinced meeting with Rodgers wasn’t a crazy idea. More than a year later, he has the results to prove he was right, too.

“He’s just been great,” Van Pelt said. “He’s done it. It’s not like he thinks it will work. He’s proved it works. He’s won.”

For those who get all wrapped up in today’s million-dollar world of graphite and titanium, allow an introduction: Rodgers was the 1958 NCAA Champion, a five-time winner on the PGA Tour who had brushes of glory at the 1962 U.S. Open and 1963 British Open. But for all his prowess as a player, Rodgers is better known as a brilliant teacher, especially when it comes to wedge play, which can be traced to another great master.

“What I learned 60 years ago from Paul Runyan is still what I rely on,” Rodgers said. “We learned by trial and error, by hitting hundreds of balls. It’s a simple philosophy. It’s all about controlling the spin and trajectory; the better you control ’em, the better you are. Hit it the right distance every time and you’ll be good.”

Van Pelt marvels at how Rodgers, who is based in his native San Diego these days, can get his point across.

“He never played with square grooves,” Van Pelt said. “So he knew exactly how to treat the ball and get the same amount of spin (with the grooves players have in 2010). He knew what it takes.”

Van Pelt gives Rodgers enormous credit for changing his short game and thus providing added confidence. To begin with, Rodgers told Van Pelt he had the wrong bounce to his wedges and the set-up wasn’t as good as it could have been.

“My technique is totally different,” Van Pelt said. “I mean, I thought I knew a little bit about short-game stuff, but . . . “

Turns out he didn’t, at least not when held up to Rodgers’ vast knowledge and experience. For an example as to why this association has worked out so well, Van Pelt pointed to a pair of plays during the second round of the Bridgestone Invitational.

“I got two shots up-and-down, at seven and eight, that I never would have gotten up-and-down prior (to working with Rodgers). Or if I had, it would have been lucky. I feel like it has changed my game.”

The proof is in the numbers.

Whereas Van Pelt had only nine top-10 finishes from 2006-08, he has six in 2010, and only Matt Kuchar and Retief Goosen have more. With a scoring average of 69.94, Van Pelt ranks ninth, but he gets measured for 82 rounds, 28 more than Ernie Els, who ranks No. 1 at 69.68. The biggest payoff, however, has been in Van Pelt’s brilliant consistency. He is riding a stretch of 12 straight cuts made and in those 48 rounds he has been in the 60s 29 times, going a combined 67 under.

Sitting 13th in the FedEx Cup standings on the eve of the first playoff event, The Barclays, Van Pelt is in great position to qualify for the Tour Championship for the first time in his solid, if unspectacular, career.

“I feel confident he has a shot to win (in the playoffs),” Rodgers said, and he added that his work with Van Pelt reminds him of another PGA Tour guy from another era.

“I did this with (Jack) Nicklaus 30 years ago,” Rodgers said. “I stimulated his interest, gave him several options with the short game. It became fun again for him, to make the shot.”

It’s that perspective, that connection to history, that attracts Van Pelt to Rodgers.

“He’s so much fun to be around,” Van Pelt said. “What I found is, he’s very engaging if you just approach him. When I’m with him, I just try to be like a sponge.”

For good reason, too.

“I figure if I can just save one shot a day, it changes your year.”

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