When and if Dan McLaughlin completes his soul-searching, hand-blistering quest sometime in 2016, this cool, damp February afternoon at Columbia Edgewater Country Club in Portland, Ore., is unlikely to make the highlight reel. There was the dougle-bogey at the first. The bladed chip at 10. The 9-iron at the par-3 17th that landed six feet from the hole only to trundle back down a slope and almost off the green. And now, the tee shot at the par-4 closer.
The 32-year-old left-hander digs in, draws back his driver, and...thwack!
“It’s on the road,” McLaughlin says as his ball sails over a stand of pines. He reloads, blocking another drive up the left side, into the rough. Three shots later, he taps in for a double-bogey and a round of 90, which won’t do much for his 10.3 handicap.
McLaughlin collects his ball, slips it into his pocket and grins.
“Oh, well,” he says, “there’s always tomorrow.”
Golfers like that expression. It’s comforting. Especially for McLaughlin, because he actually does have tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. And the...well, here’s the deal: Two years ago, McLaughlin dropped everything—his job as a photographer, most of his other short-term goals and aspirations, some would argue his sanity—to answer the kind of provocative question a foursome might debate over post-round cocktails: If a novice golfer committed himself to 10,000 hours of serious practice and proper coaching, how good could he become? Could he develop enough game to win amateur events? To play the mini-tours? To make the PGA Tour? To win on the PGA Tour? Absurd, right? Conventional wisdom tells us you can’t learn the kind of talent required to play with Tiger and Phil, certainly not at McLaughlin’s age. Either you’ve got it, or you don’t. Plus, who would or could commit to such an outlandish experiment? Ten thousand hours—that’s six hours of practice a day, six days a week, for six years. Or roughly the same amount of time it took Leo Tolstoy to write War and Peace.
Enter Dan McLaughlin. A quarter of the way— or more than 2,500 hours—through the so-called “Dan Plan,” McLaughlin has evolved into a unique golfing species: part range rat, part lab rat, with a steadily descending handicap and a steadily swelling team of advisers, intrigued observers and one multinational corporation tagging along for the ride. “There’s nothing I’d rather be doing,” McLaughlin says, as if the last two years of glove-tearing practice sessions haven’t proved that. “It’s like living, or pursuing, the American dream. What guy wouldn’t want to go out and practice golf for six years?”
Most guys, actually.
Then again, most guys aren’t like McLaughlin.
To better understand this man and his plan, you must first acquaint yourself with the work of one K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., a 64-year-old psychology professor at Florida State University. Ericsson, a Swede, has spent decades researching what makes people excel at various pursuits, from soccer and Scrabble to surgery and stock picking. The essence of his findings, which he and his colleagues published in 2006 in the 900-page Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, is that talent is way overrated. The authors posited that through 10,000 hours of “deliberate” practice—a strict regimen that requires its disciples to set ambitious goals, extract immediate feedback, and focus on technique as much as results—anyone can be good, really good, at virtually anything. Even golf.
Ericsson says he’s excited by McLaughlin’s venture not only because McLaughlin is meticulously tracking his progress and statistics on a website (scientists like data) but also because he’s doing it at a relatively advanced age. “Ultimately what I’m hoping we learn from Dan,” Ericsson says, “is that if in some ways he is unable to keep improving, can we put our finger on what the limiting factors have been?”
In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers introduced Ericsson’s theories to the masses, McLaughlin included. At the time, McLaughlin was making a nice income photographing dental equipment. He didn’t dislike the job, but it didn’t exactly enthrall him, either. “He’s the type who does something and then quickly gets bored of it,” says McLaughlin’s mother, Susan. His father, Steve, puts it this way: “Dan’s a bit of a maverick; he never wants to do what anyone else is doing. I think that’s why the golf thing appealed to him.”
As a 12-year-old in suburban Atlanta, Dan showed up at his family’s Methodist church for his would-be confirmation, but when the moment came he declined to be confirmed. He had come to the realization, he says now, that he didn’t want to be “force-fed” religion. After high school, he enrolled at Boston University, before transferring a year later to the University of Georgia, before taking a year off to see the world. In 2006, he landed in Portland, where he paid the bills snapping pictures while dabbling in other pursuits. He concocted plans for a sparkling water company, but pulled the plug just before signing for a loan. He enrolled in business school, attended exactly one class and quit. “I just knew it wasn’t going to keep me tantalized,” he says.
It was around this time that McLaughlin discovered Outliers and another book based on a similar principle, Talent Is Overrated, which prompted him to bone up on more of Ericsson’s research. Informed and inspired, McLaughlin made a bold decision: He would test his capacity for learning by dedicating his life to mastering a skill. Painting, perhaps? Or architecture? Or stock trading? He considered them all until he played a round of golf with his then girlfriend, Marijke Dixon, while traveling in Nebraska. “I knew he thought he could do anything,” Dixon recalls. “And I totally kicked his butt.” That irked McLaughlin. It seemed like a relatively simple game. And then it hit him: He had found his Everest. McLaughlin would try to conquer golf.
It’s easy to scoff at McLaughlin’s endeavor (“I didn’t think he would last six months,” his mother admits), and not only because of his flaky past. Golf is, of course, hard. Really hard. That’s precisely what Christopher Smith, the energetic director of instruction at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, near Portland, was thinking when McLaughlin asked to meet with him in the summer of 2009. “To be honest, I had about 15 seconds for him, maybe 10,” says Smith, a former Pacific Northwest PGA Teacher of the Year. “I was kind of offended by how easy he thought this was going to be.” But McLaughlin would not be denied, even bouncing his big idea off Ericsson himself. Wow, Smith thought, this guy’s got some balls. Stirred by McLaughlin’s resolve and intrigued by the project, Smith came aboard as McLaughlin’s copilot. The Dan Plan was under way.