Butch Harmon has given a gazillion golf lessons. This time, he took one.
Harmon had been watching from afar the way George Gankas operates: the impromptu videos on social, his star student Matthew Wolff’s loop-de-loop swing, the lessons in Gucci slides and a flat brim. Butch liked that Gankas was pushing golf’s traditions, and he saw in him the unapologetic self-belief for which Harmon is known. Butch wanted to meet the guy, and what better way than stand on his lesson tee?
“People said to me, ‘He’s wacky, why do you want to do that?’ ” says Harmon, who retains his ranking as the No. 1 teacher in America, as voted by his peers, for the 19th straight year. “I like people who are different. I’m 76 years old, but I always want to learn from whoever’s doing new things. Plus, George is really getting results, and that’s what makes a teacher great.”
Gankas, who is 48 but can hang with the skateboard crowd, could hardly believe his luck. “For Butch to come to my place and give it 110 percent as a student, that’s cool. I knew I could help him, not because he doesn’t know what he needs, but because hearing it and feeling it in a different way can click,” Gankas says. “I’m very hands-on in lessons. I grew up wrestling, so I physically move people into positions. That’s the quickest way, and quickest is best.”
It’s not only Harmon who sees something special here. A group of 1,500 leading golf instructors nationwide voted Gankas, who two years ago was unranked, No. 11 in Golf Digest’s 50 Best Teachers in America. It’s the highest debut in the program’s history. Gankas joins other newcomers Dana Dahlquist (27), David Orr (T-33), Nick Clearwater (T-33), Martin Chuck (36), Grant Waite (41), Tony Ruggiero (43), James Leitz (T-45), Boyd Summerhays (T-45) and Trillium Rose (T-50).
So off we go to Westlake Golf Course outside Los Angeles and its mats-only range up against the 101 Freeway. It’s where locals go to beat balls, and where the top teacher in the land took his first lesson in 50 years.
1. TAKING CARE OF THE FACE
The miss that kills me is a low pull or hook, mostly with the irons. I’m a good driver, but my iron contact, and especially that left shot, can be an issue. I tend to “chase” the ball at impact with a little throw from my right hand, which is my way of squaring the clubface. Sometimes I close it too much and hit it left, or my contact is off.
The best iron players go through the ball with more passive hands and a lot of body rotation, assuming the clubface is ready to go. Butch’s hand positions were rotated toward the target. That was leading to an open face on the backswing and a downswing where the trail hand was throwing to square the face. Instead of changing his grip, we had him bow his left wrist. It keeps the face more closed, so you can turn through without worrying about squaring the clubface.
2. ADDING MORE BODY ROTATION
Once we got the face more closed, Butch’s normal throw made the ball go way left, so he naturally did it less. More body rotation was instinctual. People think I’m crazy when I say they hook it because their clubface is open, but if you slow down through impact to try to catch up the face, the swing path goes right and the face goes left. That’s a hook. We had to get Butch rotating more, which puts the path more left and the face more right for straighter shots.
I knew I should turn harder when the face was more closed coming into the shot, but my body doesn’t rotate like it used to. We saw on video when we started that my hips and shoulders were basically square at impact [like they are at address]. But when he stood behind me and pulled my left shoulder around, it was a totally different feel. I went from square at impact to about 30 degrees open. That’s a huge change that led to straighter shots and more speed.
HARMON: LEARNING NEVER STOPS
I tell young teachers all the time: Go listen to the guy who teaches concepts you don’t believe in. If you’re open-minded, you’ll come away with a lot of new ideas and be better in the end. One of my standard lines is, “I don’t teach golf. teach people to play golf.” You never know when you’re going to come across a player who needs something different. The more you can expand your thinking, the better prepared you are for those situations. You have to keep learning.
3. FINDING THE RIGHT FEEL
We knew we were on track when we starting seeing fewer left shots, and he was compressing the ball better because with more turn, the shaft was leaning forward at impact. We tried another rotational feel: the right shoulder and right hip pocket beating the clubhead to the ball. For a player who is active with the right side, this one usually helps. Turns out, Butch connected more with clearing the left side than ripping through with the right. The takeaway: There’s more than one way to teach. Everyone learns differently.
It’s funny, I’m always telling my players to drive the right side, but for me, turning my left side out of the way felt more natural. As George says, it does the same thing. I started to feel a little strain in my left lower back, so I knew I was rotating through differently. I just kept trying to bow my left wrist going back, and then wheel my left side around as hard as I could. The strike was better, and it sounded better, too.
4. LETTING THE HEAD GO
I like that George was having me try different feels without ever changing the goal: Get the face set, turn through. Great teachers don’t waver much; they pick a move, and then hammer it to death. Another concept that clicked for me was releasing my head toward the target earlier, what George called, “sticking your neck out.” I use this one with my players, but I needed reminding to try it myself. Turning my head early was easier than trying to feel what my legs or hips were doing.
Getting the head to swivel forward is what Matt [Wolff] and work on. We want the chest to open for better contact and a more stable clubface, which leads to a predictable start line. It’s like throwing a pass: The eyes go to the target, which releases the neck and allows the chest to open. But this doesn’t happen from the top down. The hips lead the turning, and the shoulders catch up when the trail arm is parallel to the ground going through. If the upper body leads, you’re chopping wood.
GANKAS: THE CLUBFACE IS KING
The golf swing is a reaction to what the clubface is doing. If I set up 10 people with an open face, some of them would swing over the top, some would fall back and pull left, some would flip the right hand at the ball. They’d do different things, but all of them would be reacting to what they see the ball doing—and that comes from the face. If closed the face, you’d see them pushing the handle forward, turning through more, and so on. Golfers adjust to the face.
5. KEEPING WITH THE PLAN
Let’s be honest here, I’m working with Butch Harmon. I’m not going to teach him things he doesn’t know. What I can do is offer it in a different way, and physically put him in positions so he can feel them. We didn’t work on the backswing, because his big issue was contact and getting rid of that left shot. We could unlock his backswing a little, get him more rotation, and he’d pick up 7, 8 miles per hour at impact. He’d be shooting in the 60s, beating his age every time.
Can I get that in writing, please?