Speed, Speed, Speed!

George Gankas and the arrival of golf's Moneyball era


In the early 2000s, Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane flipped the baseball world on its head by constructing a team of players solely based on sabermetrics. After studying the work of baseball statistician Bill James, Beane began to see the underrated value of players who performed well in certain stats like on-base percentage and slugging percentage, even if these players didn’t pass the “eye test” of baseball scouts.

For years, the A’s exceeded expectations, consistently beating teams with payrolls two to three times larger than theirs. None of these deep-pocketed teams could figure out why this penniless upstart kept beating them. Then the 2007 Boston Red Sox, adopting many of Beane’s methods, won the World Series, and the sabermetrics floodgates blew open.

A similar revolution is currently taking place in golf, but it doesn’t just have to do with new-age statistics like Mark Broadie’s strokes-gained system. Perhaps an even bigger change is occurring in the way the golf swing is taught.

Golf, like baseball, is steeped in tradition and history, and for years golfers have shared similar ideas about what a good golf swing looks like: a weight shift to the right foot on the backswing while keeping the club under Hogan’s famed pane of glass, then a lateral move through the ball onto the left foot into a reverse-C follow-through.

Images from Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf

This swing was born following the release of Hogan’s hugely popular Five Lessons book, but it reached its adulthood during the video-camera era of the 80s and 90s. Suddenly, golfers could compare their swings, position by position, to those of Payne Stewart and Nick Price.

This traditional move looks beautiful, but as technology changes and golfers begin to train more like athletes in other sports, the old ideals of the golf swing grow more antiquated by the day. Equipped with a ball that barely spins and high-MOI 460cc driver heads, many young players have abandoned Hogan’s Five Lessons in favor of a different piece of literature: The Gospel of Speed as Preached by George Gankas.

As evidenced by his growing stable of professionals and rabid internet following, Gankas has ushered in a new generation of golfers who religiously follow the teacher’s principles: a giant shoulder turn without much weight shift, a squat down into the ground to create a large amount of torque, and a massive rotation through the ball to generate a ton of speed at impact.

Individual versions of this move can break golf’s traditional rules about what a “correct” swing looks like, and Gankas couldn’t care less. To him, the merits of a swing are weighed on a Flightscope monitor. Launch angle, spin, and ball speed numbers are prioritized over aesthetics.

Billy Beane didn’t invent sabermetrics, and Gankas didn’t invent these swing ideas. Instructors all over the country, including Sean Foley and Chris Como, teach many of the same principles that Gankas does. These new-wave teachers don’t necessarily care if your swing looks like Steve Elkington’s or Adam Scott’s as long as you’re generating speed. In this way, golf is going the way of baseball, where hard data has made the “eye test” far less relevant.

This “numbers over aesthetics” movement in golf instruction is not a fad or a trend, it’s a tsunami. Thanks to his informal, charming demeanor and his social-media savvy, Gankas is currently riding the wave the highest, and that likely will not change anytime soon. While an instructor like Sean Foley makes the golf swing sound like a difficult physics equation, Gankas’s teachings seem accessible and straightforward.

In an excellent profile of Gankas from last year, Alan Shipnuck described part of a lesson he observed the instructor give Tristan Gretzky:

“Gankas is literally a hands-on teacher, frequently moving his pupils’ limbs through different positions. Every swing is monitored by a Flightscope launch monitor and a video camera, and Gankas races between his laptop and the mat, instantly processing information and applying it. His patter never stops. He teased Gretzky by saying, ‘You’re not using your legs, bro. You get one lesson from Butch and all of a sudden you’ve lost 30 yards.’ He followed with the ultimate enticement: ‘Give me a good swing and I’ll put it on the ’Gram.”

Just as Billy Beane upset baseball’s apple cart 20 years ago, George Gankas is on the verge of doing something similar to golf’s established order. Two Gankas disciples, Sung Kang and Matthew Wolff, won this year on the PGA Tour. Wolff’s win at the 3M Open especially resonated with the public not only because he’s just 20 years old but also because his swing resides so far outside the sport’s Overton window.

Matthew Wolff's (soon-to-be-less-)unusual position at the top of his backswing

If equipment technology continues to progress, there is no reason why the next generation of golfers’ swings won’t look more like Wolff’s than like Luke Donald’s. It won’t matter whether the club sits in a picture-perfect position at the top if the Trackman numbers come back looking good.

It is fair to wonder whether this focus on launch monitor data will take some of the mystery and subtlety out of the game. If it does, the blame lies with the USGA and R&A, not with golf instructors. Gankas and his ilk are taking the golf swing to a logical place given the current technological landscape. Speed has become king because the ball doesn’t spin much, drivers are big enough, and marginal strikes are tolerated more than they were in the past. It’s not the fault of players and their coaches that the sport’s ruling bodies buried their heads in the sand and failed to regulate equipment manufacturers while Tiger Woods lined their pockets.

In the meantime, Gankas keeps doing what he’s done for years: pacing in flip-flops at the far end of the Westlake Golf Course driving range from morning till night, refashioning the game, one lesson at a time.

Michael Geiger is a college junior studying marketing at the University of Minnesota. When he’s not playing golf, he’s either writing about the game or thinking about taking his clubs to a pawn shop.

This article is part of The Fried Egg’s Sunday Brunch series, which focuses on golf stories that don’t fit the usual categories. Find out more about the series here.