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One day this spring, George Gankas was telling me about his brief and not very illustrious career as a pro golfer. This was in the late '90s, after Gankas had graduated from college, at Cal State Northridge. The short version was his driver let him down—he was plenty long, but he had a tendency to block or hook the ball on tight courses—and so did his brain. It was only years later, after he got into teaching, that he got a handle on his own flaws as a player. “A lot of it was ego,” he said in retrospect. “Being afraid to either look stupid or play a bad round.”
But Gankas had always been a little obsessed with the golf swing—how it worked, or didn't work—and what he found was that more and more people were coming to him for advice about it. So he became an instructor. First at Moorpark, a golf course 50 miles west of Los Angeles, and then—after a client, Janet Jones Gretzky, wife of the hockey player Wayne, asked him if he'd start giving lessons closer to her house—at a place called Westlake. It was there that Gankas began building a wide-ranging roster of clients that came to include the entire Gretzky family, thousands of amateurs of varying ability, and after a time, a promising 14-year-old junior player with a chaotic swing named Matthew Wolff, who found a spot near Gankas on the Westlake range one day. “I just started hitting balls,” Wolff told me, “and he looked over at me and said, ‘Dude, is that your real swing?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, man.’ He said, ‘That is the sickest swing I've ever seen.’ ”
Wolff's busy motion was more baseball than golf; he looked like a major leaguer preparing to hit a fastball. But this did not seem like a problem to Gankas, who was beginning to develop a reputation for repudiating much of the modern orthodoxy about what a golf swing should or should not be. The two got along and formed a partnership that endures. Today, Wolff, at 22—with that same weird action he had at 14—is a PGA Tour winner who has been ranked as high as 12th in the world. Meanwhile, Gankas, who still teaches at Westlake, has become one of the most famous and influential golf instructors on the planet.
There are many elegant and exclusive cathedrals dedicated to golf in Los Angeles: Riviera, Los Angeles Country Club, Bel-Air. Westlake is not one of them. It is a flat, unlovely patch of land out in the hinterlands of L.A., where the summers are hot and the grass turns a scorched brown. Players hit off rubber mats at the driving range. It's a place where no one will see you, should you happen to look stupid.
For a game played largely in logo-dense polos made from shiny synthetic fabrics, golf is obsessed with aesthetics—what you wear, how you wear it, what you do while you're wearing it. It's a conservative game in that way and in practically every other way too: There are rules about where to stand, when to talk; there are rules about nearly everything. Appearances and etiquette are all. Form, in particular—the way you swing a club—is evaluated not just for its effectiveness but for its beauty. If you turn on a PGA Tour broadcast, it is only a matter of time before the announcers single out someone like Adam Scott, the sweet-swinging Australian pro, as an example for the viewer at home to emulate. Scott's swing is what many would call technically perfect: on plane, in rhythm, pretty and unhurried from start to finish.
But, Gankas asked, why is this sort of swing considered perfect? It hadn't always been. As Gankas's career as a player petered out, he started watching tape of previous generations of golfers, legends of the game like Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. And what he noticed was that they did all sorts of stuff that you're not supposed to do. They lifted their front foot off the ground. They extended their spine. “Their arms were flying, which created more speed,” Gankas told me. “They set up differently, in a way that allows you to turn more, a way that creates more speed. And we went away from it.”
Gankas thought: What if we went back? “I was like: We got it wrong for 20 years, 30 years, of us going into biomechanics and thinking that we had a better way,” he told me. “And I said, ‘That's not right.’ And I got a lot of criticism for it at first. And then a lot of people copied [me], whether they want to believe it or not—they did.” Gankas began preaching a doctrine that said: Don't worry about how you look. “I think that the ball flight says it all,” he told me. “I don't think that the swing says anything. I think there's a lot of guys with pretty swings. They can't score. And then there's a lot of ugly swings that score better.”
At Westlake, students now reverently address him as G. His rate has climbed to between $600 and $1,000 per hour; his acolytes include CEOs, gamers, pro skateboarders, and celebrities, who converge on the range to listen to Gankas teach and pontificate and chew tobacco, which he keeps in a tin next to his Goyard wallet. He gives lessons—has been known to play actual rounds—without socks, in Gucci slides and shorts and a flat-brimmed baseball cap. “He dresses like a guy you would never want to take advice from,” Chris Solomon, who cofounded the golf media and podcast company No Laying Up, told me. “It almost seems like it's too good to be true that this guy can know what he's talking about, carry himself in this way, and yet not be scamming you. It almost looks like it could be a scam. But it is so absolutely not a scam.” Or as Gankas himself put it: “A lot of people would say I'm a genius when it comes to golf. But if they hung out with me, they'd say, ‘He's a fucking moron.’ ”
Gankas has nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram, putting him at the forefront of a social-media-driven revolution in golf instruction. His posts have a dangerous, slightly feral feel, in that you never know who might show up, what they might say, or how profane any given exercise might get. You might see him harangue an eight-year-old golf prodigy about his rotation or lack thereof (“Ride around and get it—don't get around and ride it!” Gankas says in one clip, in homage to 2 Chainz) or demonstrate something called “the nut sack drill” by having his friend, who goes by The Best Golfer, wear a giant set of plastic novelty testicles in order to show the weight of the body moving along the correct path. Gankas's posts feature a lot of clouds of unidentified lung smoke and dudes saying “siiiicckk” or “niiiice.” But if you watch over time, you can also see Gankas turn amateur after amateur into speed machines who swing harder and faster than many tour players.
The great golf instructors of yore did not talk about nut sacks. But Gankas does and, in doing so, has revolutionized the sport for the rest of us—the less gifted of us—who play it. Gankas's golf is not the high-minded game of business deals and rule fetishization; it is about doing whatever you need to do, however ugly or unseemly, to hit the ball as far as you fucking can. Watch him on YouTube or listen to him talk—almost inevitably in a fast, confusing monologue—and you realize, eventually, that he is in an ongoing, friendly argument with the entire recent history of his profession. Results-wise, it's an argument he's winning.
What is a golf swing? What is its purpose? Why do we do this thing that is so dumb? There is no beginner's luck in golf. Go out there with a club and a ball without preparation or instruction and you will return defeated, angry, and without the ball. They say that people who wait until adulthood to learn foreign languages never quite get the accent right; you either acquire it in the first plastic flush of childhood or not at all. This is the way I feel about my own golf game, which I started on the wrong side of 30: I may pick up the grammar, the vocabulary. But I'll never be a native speaker.
And yet I'm obsessed, like most golfers are. There is something irresistible about a game that puts perfection at such a far remove that you have infinite room to chase it. My text chains come alive whenever the pros on TV top 3-woods into the ground, hook drives, or shank irons into the water: YES. Their ugly mistakes are testaments to the game's untamable nature, proof of the fact that we all worship the same cruel god. In golf, you're considered good if you're a scratch golfer, meaning you shoot around par; the average men's handicap is somewhere around 14, meaning you shoot 14 strokes above par—not far from one extra per hole. Into this yawning gap between what we aspire to be and what we are comes a whole host of training aids, One Weird Tricks, and thousands upon thousands of YouTube and Instagram accounts purporting to teach the correct way to do things.
“There are so many different ways to swing,” says PGA Tour player Mathew Wolff, a Gankas protégé. “And that's George's theory: There are so many different ways of doing it.”
Go to your local basketball court; there are no shooting coaches hanging around, waiting for clients. But go to the public range in your town and you will see grown men with towels tucked under their arms and sticks at their feet and cameras pointed at their bodies, all in the hope of remedying the dizzying number of flaws that can afflict a golf swing: too steep, too narrow, too inside, too outside, too much sway, not enough sway, too stiff, too loose, too handsy, too armsy, too legsy. It is simply a hard game, even before you look up from the ball and start registering the sand traps and the water hazards, the tricky greens and swirling winds. To play it well is to feel in control of the entire universe; to play it badly is what happens the other 99 percent of the time.
And so the game is rife with instructors of varying philosophies and abilities: resort pros, former athletes tending to the range, Brits doing YouTube videos from gray British courses, and teachers at chains like GolfTEC, where you enter a windowless room and attach sensors to various parts of your body. There are dynastic princes of the game, like Tiger Woods's former coach Butch Harmon, himself the son of a Masters champion, or the now deceased Harvey Penick, whose Little Red Book will be received as a gift, at one time or another, by every golfer alive.
But just as most of the great golf courses in America are exclusive and closed to the public, most of the great teachers are out of reach: They work at private clubs or go on tour with players. George Gankas, however, is still at Westlake, beating up range balls and rubber mats. And you can still book a lesson, to fix what you cannot fix yourself.
Gankas got into golf in order to beat his father at it. He was 17, 18 at the time—incredibly late, by the usual standards of pro sports. “I played a bad round with my dad,” Gankas said. “And he told me I was terrible.” The younger Gankas already excelled at wrestling, volleyball, waterskiing, baseball, and football, but his father, Frank, who was a P.E. teacher and a bodybuilder, told his son that he'd never seen anybody so bad at golf. “I didn't like sucking,” Gankas told me. “But that was my motivation: to beat my dad.”
Within a year he went from shooting in the 120s—standard beginner stuff—to shooting in the 70s, which many people never do. Within two years he was a plus handicap—better than scratch. (This is not normal, or really even fathomable.) He did this by becoming a golf monk: 36 holes plus 500 to 1,000 balls on the range, every day. Did he have a life? No. Not at all. He had a spot at a junior college in Ventura, “which was a joke,” and played on the golf team until he transferred to Cal State Northridge, where he played in the early '90s with Rick Sessinghaus, who now teaches the promising young tour player Collin Morikawa. “I remember him coming up to the first tee with his shirt untucked,” Sessinghaus said about Gankas. “Just not at all the typical golfer.”
Before long, Tiger Woods would begin his takeover of the sport, and the best players in the world quickly moved from the pudgy, improvisational model of olden times into a more muscle-bound and professionalized mode, enabled in part by technological advances in the equipment. Like the various distinct local accents that are now fading from the world, golfers used to show up to the tour with a whole host of individualized tics and techniques and body mass indexes. But as the ability to put themselves on-camera, in slow motion, became more widespread, the swing began to standardize and calcify. Beauty and aesthetics became all. “It was all ‘prettier,’ ” Gankas told me. “And to me it wasn't prettier. It was more mechanical-looking. It was more P.C.-looking, rather than having a flow. There was no flow in it.”
“I'm not going to go and tell anybody you suck,” Gankas said to me, when I told him I was apprehensive about learning how he worked firsthand. “I'm like a doctor.”
Players in previous generations, Gankas noticed, got busy before the swing even occurred. They didn't just stand there. “Those old-timers had triggers,” he said—gestures or motions they would do to start their swings. “There's movement beforehand. Then we got static. I mean, we were just sticking there, and we moved from there, and there was no flow to anything. And so I wanted to see flow again. I want to see rhythm.” Forget the quiet body at address, the mannered takeaway, the checklist of positions a golfer is supposed to attain throughout the swing. Gankas, as he got into teaching, wanted to see people moving like athletes.
To help students generate more clubhead speed, he taught a violent turn that begins around the hips and knees. “Some of the things I did with my legwork for speed, people were like, ‘Ooh, that's crazy,’ ” Gankas told me. “Me extending the spine up, my arms flying, not being perfectly on plane like Adam Scott. But that doesn't mean I don't love Adam Scott's swing, because I do.” But most of us can't swing like Adam Scott, and some of us will actually get injured trying to swing like Adam Scott, and Gankas doesn't want to see that: “I want to see motion back to where it was, where it floated and nobody got hurt.”
The avatar of the Gankas swing on the PGA Tour is Matthew Wolff, whose swing begins with a tangle of triggers and gets stranger from there—his knees flex, his hands go forward, he lifts the club straight up into the air, pointing the wrong way, across the line, before coming around and down, with an aggressive rotation through the ball. But Wolff also hits it really far—his average driving distance is a healthy 314 yards, comfortably inside the top 10 on tour—and has already nearly won a major, coming in second to Bryson DeChambeau at the 2020 U.S. Open. “There's a lot of things that I do that don't really make sense in the golf swing, to be honest,” Wolff told me. “There are so many different ways to swing. And that's George's theory: There are so many different ways of doing it. And if you feel more comfortable
doing it one way, you're going to be able to repeat it more. Whereas if you're trying to get in certain positions and make your swing look perfect and do something you're not comfortable with, it's going to be much harder under pressure.”
At the Masters this year, both Wolff and Gankas ran into trouble on the premises—Wolff for signing an incorrect scorecard after his second round, and Gankas for dropping his cell phone on the hallowed eighth hole of Augusta National. (He was briefly removed and then reinstated; coaches are supposed to be able to carry phones.) But Gankas told me he didn't care: “Probably one of the worst weeks we've ever had,” he said with a laugh. “But shit happens.” He's arrived so thoroughly he doesn't mind when he is occasionally asked to depart.
One day in February, I watched Gankas instruct a guy named Nelson, a lineman for ConEd who traveled up to Westlake from Long Beach on his day off. Nelson was a repeat customer; he told me he'd been grandfathered in, a bit, on his rate. Gankas began the lesson by working on Nelson's transition: the move from backswing to downswing. “Imagine your left nut sack moving into your left hip,” Gankas commanded. “Load that nut.” He'd drawn a line in chalk on the mat: the path Nelson's nut sack was supposed to follow.
By Gankas standards, this was relatively tame, and none of the many other golfers scattered around the range blinked as he bellowed about loading balls. At the end of the lesson, he showed Nelson video of his new, improved swing. “That looks like a fucking pro,” Gankas told him. “That's a whole new player right there.”
His next student was a guy named Tim, with a Rolex and a Los Angeles Country Club hat and golf bag, who introduced himself as a real estate developer and race car driver. “I just got back from 24 Hours in Dubai,” Tim said. “And I got COVID there. I was super fucked up.” Vaccines were not widely available at the time; neither man was wearing a mask. Gankas asked him uneasily if he still had it. Tim said no: He'd recovered. And the two of them went to work.
Gankas is a hands-on instructor, and on most days he enlists a number of the guys who sit around watching to help move his players into the positions he wants to see them in—jerking on hips and knees, rotating shoulders, and holding training aids out at the ready. As Tim swung away, Gankas admitted that these days power-company linemen are generally the exception, not the rule, in terms of his clientele—that my romance about his widespread availability was somewhat misplaced. “I'm too expensive right now for a lot of people,” he said, “and that does suck, but they've had their opportunity to come over the last 20 years.” One of Gankas's regulars, Ben Kohn, the CEO of Playboy, told me he first found Gankas through “other people talking about him at Bel-Air Country Club, where I play, as well as on social media”—a typical client these days. (Kohn said he was undeterred by the boisterous scene at Westlake. “One, you're in California,” he said. “Two, you're in Southern California.”) Another time, Gankas called me mid-test-drive of a Bentley: “It's a little stupid,” he admitted. “I can afford it. But it's stupid.”
But in an era when many people are trying to figure out how to make golf a more open and inclusive game—from clothing brands like Malbon and Whim and Eastside, which are trying to shake the country club out of the sport, to companies like No Laying Up, which produces podcasts and videos about the sport from the perspective of smart fans who actually play it—Gankas has arguably done more than most in terms of making the game accessible to the widest spectrum of interested people. He teaches on a public range at a public course, and he makes parts of those lessons available to anyone who wants to watch them on Instagram. His business now includes a massive online membership site, where for a subscription you can get videos of Gankas teaching pretty much every aspect of the golf game and where Gankas employs a few guys to field and respond to questions more or less instantly. He also sells a couple of training aids—the GBox and The Shallower—that have made over a million dollars in their first year of availability, according to one of his business partners.
To be an amateur golfer is to be full of unhelpful tips and clips of half-watched YouTube videos. Gankas basically took my brain and shook out all the detritus, the loose change. He got me out of my head.
Gankas estimates that between his in-person list and his membership site he has more than 8,000 students at any given time. That would make him among the most prolific golf instructors in the country, and that's before you take into account those nearly 300,000 Instagram followers—more than most players on the actual PGA Tour have. At Gankas's level of success, he could go on tour as a swing coach with Matthew Wolff or any number of other professionals he occasionally works with—Danny Lee, Sung Kang, Padraig Harrington, Akshay Bhatia, and a host of players he can't name publicly—or he could fly around the world, giving private lessons, which he occasionally does. “The guy has the knowledge and pedigree to teach wherever he wants,” No Laying Up's Chris Solomon said. “I have heard this: He will charge you on your lesson based on what kind of car you pull up in.” (Gankas denied this. “That's ridiculous. That would make me a dick.”) Wolff said that he is often out at dinner with Gankas when people recognize the instructor and come over to ask about the golf swing: “He'll get up and start showing them how to swing in the middle of a nice restaurant.”
Recently, Gankas told me that he was considering moving to Arizona, to pay less taxes. But his wife likes California, and he's from there too. And what Gankas really likes is teaching the golf swing. He told me, “Why do I stay here on the mats? Because people don't mind it. I can fix a player in an hour and they're stoked and they go back and talk. And I think, for me, it doesn't matter where I teach. As long as I'm helping people. As long as I'm fixing people.”
The question inevitably arose, then: Did I need fixing? There is some blissful minority of players who simply like playing, who do it for, I don't know—the trees? Fresh air? They like driving the cart? But most people I know who play golf are in a constant, masochistic dialogue with themselves about just how badly they suck. I am a person whose brain is mostly indifferent to success but absolutely obsessed with failure. This makes golf a perfect game for me, because I spend the vast majority of my playing time failing at it.
So yes, I needed fixing. I was nervous about it, though. Gankas is used to this. It doesn't make sense to him, but he's used to it.
“Your ego is so on right now,” he said, when I told him I was apprehensive about the prospect of learning how he worked firsthand. “I'm not going to go and tell anybody you suck. I'm like a doctor. So you're judging yourself, but I'm not judging you.”
Gankas's great flaw as a player, in retrospect, was fear. Now he teaches his students to overwhelm fear with acceptance. Stay present, he says. When you're out on the golf course, don't get too sunk into yourself; look up from the ball, at the beauty of the natural world, and get outside your own traitorous body, your own monstrous ego.
“For me, to always look up and out is huge because I can see detail in the trees,” Gankas told me. “It gets me present. It gets me out of my head.” He said that lately his eyesight, which had been excellent, had begun to fail him. “I need to get my eyes fixed so I can get back to that. Because if I'm in my head, I'm miserable. I'm running through thoughts. And a lot of times, that's not where I want to be. So I teach my players to stay present. And if I'm not doing it myself, I'm not going to teach them to do it.”
He told me even the great Wayne Gretzky had been like me when he first met Gankas. “I asked Wayne Gretzky, ‘How come you get so nervous when you play golf?’ And he said, ‘Because it's not my sport.’ I said, ‘You played in front of millions of people. What were you thinking then?’ He said, ‘I just was following the puck. I knew where the puck was at. I was at the puck first. That's all I thought about.’ ” Gankas would like us all to just follow the puck.
He led me to the range, had me hit a few shots. And then he was off. A lesson with George Gankas is a blur of motion: You rub up against trash cans, to learn the feel of a proper pivot; you watch yourself in the mirror he's got set up there, to see what the proper setup looks like; you hit off the mat, off the grass, off the concrete, even. He moves you around a bunch with his hands. When he's got something particularly poignant to say, he tells you to press Record on your cell phone camera first so you can capture it for posterity. He is kind—You've got a good turn, bro—but also blunt, honest, when you repeatedly do something wrong, like line the ball up with the hosel of the club for some reason: What the fuck are you doing?
All you are really wondering, though, is: Did it work? I will not bore you with the details. I will simply say I've had other lessons; I learned more from Gankas in five minutes than I have in any of those other lessons. It was pouring rain during our session, and he stood out in the middle of it, undaunted, identifying flaw after flaw. It was clearly easy for him. Without getting too technical about what we were doing, my overwhelming takeaway is that it was simple: Turn back, to this position. And then turn through. Now do it again, but faster. To be an amateur golfer is to be full of unhelpful tips and clips of half-watched YouTube videos. Gankas basically took my brain, turned it upside down, and shook out all the detritus, the loose change. He got me out of my head.
I have watched the videos he has left me with many times—more times than is helpful, probably. I have relived the lesson in my mind, probing it for information I have yet to absorb. I have gone from bad to slightly less bad. Slightly less bad feels amazing.
Zach Baron is GQ's senior staff writer.
A version of this story originally appeared in the August 2021 issue with the title "Golf's Radical New Guru."
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