The journey began on April 5, 2010, on a blustery morning at Broadmoor Golf Course, a public track just down the road from Columbia Edgewater. “It was about 38 degrees and raining,” McLaughlin recalls, “and I’m out there on the putting green in a yellow rubber jacket, blue jeans and running shoes.” His task for the next two hours: one-footers. And only one-footers.
That drill alone would send most golfers running for the nearest padded room, but McLaughlin endured. Over the ensuing weeks, he backed up to three-footers, six-footers, 20-footers, spending days at some distances until he felt he had achieved Tour pro–like prowess. Eric Sach, a near-scratch amateur and now a regular playing partner of McLaughlin’s, first encountered McLaughlin toiling away in the rain at Heron Lakes, a 36-hole facility north of downtown. “He’d hit a couple of two-foot putts and then write something down in his little notebook,” Sach says. “I think I heckled him. I was, like, ‘Dude, you don’t write down two-foot misses. You try to forget those.’ ”
It’s hard to know whether to admire McLaughlin or to pity him. He seems happy, and he exudes a mellowness suited to the city in which he resides. But training to be an elite golfer is a lonely existence. Two hours on a deserted range, a couple more in the gym, another three out on the course. Double-bogeys haunting you at night. An introspective blog that won’t write itself. It’s intense, all-consuming work that leaves little time for anything, or anyone, else. A couple of weeks after McLaughlin’s underwhelming round at Columbia Edgewater, he and Kelsey, his girlfriend of a year, split up. “Perhaps that’s what happens to relationships when the focus is so obsessive,” he wrote in an e-mail.
After five months of hard labor on practice greens, McLaughlin began to gather both steam and clubs. In September 2010, with Smith’s blessing, McLaughlin added a pitching wedge to his arsenal, then a lob wedge, hitting shots only from 35 yards and in. By July of the following year, he was up to five clubs. In August, he added a hybrid. “Dear lord was I happy to finally have a stick I could hit more than 200 yards,” he wrote on his blog.
Physical ailments have come and gone. First it was an achy back from his putting fests. Then wrist, elbow, and shoulder issues, and a bum right knee; hitting 200 balls a day will do that to a man. Thus far, though, injuries have not derailed him. By December 2011, with just eight sticks at his disposal, McLaughlin had ground his handicap down to 11.3. He didn’t carry a complete set—14 glorious clubs—until January of this year. The 90 he shot at Columbia Edgewater was his first round on his home track with a full bag. “I played pretty poorly today,” he said after that round. “But I feel like I’m a single-digit handicap. That’s pretty good after just six weeks with full set. Not many people get to that level, maybe 25 percent of golfers.”
That’s because most golfers, no matter how avid, have jobs. McLaughlin says he gets by by “being good with money,” which in part means he doesn’t care much about money. “If my house burned down and someone stole my car, whatever,” he says, starting to laugh. “If the apocalypse came, we’d all be screwed. Anything less than that, I don’t really worry about.”
He owns a small house in a cozy neighborhood in northeast Portland that he bought in 2008 with some help from his parents (and which he has shared with 13 different roommates). He travels by bike when possible. He accepts donations via his website thedanplan.com; he collected about $4,000 last year. The biggest contributions have come from the golf world. Columbia Edgewater, one of the premier clubs in town, gave McLaughlin playing privileges. Nike, which is based in Beaverton, just west of Portland, doesn’t officially endorse McLaughlin, but it does outfit him with gear, including the same precise but unforgiving Victory Red Blade irons that Tiger Woods plays. (If McLaughlin can hit those, Smith reasons, he’ll be able to hit anything.)
In February, McLaughlin and Smith visited Nike headquarters to discuss his progress and potential synergies. McLaughlin’s odyssey has all the trappings of an inspirational “Just Do It” commercial, but he worries that aligning with a corporate partner might rob his story of its folksy, feel-good vibe. Plus, what if McLaughlin flames out? Where would that leave Nike?
That, of course, is the question—will McLaughlin make it? To the 10,000-hour mark? To the mini-tours? To the PGA Tour? And to his ultimate goal: the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour?
“Oh, I’ll get there,” he says unflinchingly of the 10,000 hours. As for the rest of it? “I know the odds are astronomical,” he says. “There are maybe 10,000 doctors in the U.S. but there are, what, 200 PGA Tour golfers, and maybe 50 who are consistently near the top?”
McLaughlin has nearly broken 80 several times—not bad for a guy who just started swinging a driver—and he makes a solid, athletic pass through the ball. Most encouraging, he’s a reliable putter, especially from short range. Smith believes McLaughlin will be shooting in the 70s by the fall and that’ll he get to scratch by the end of the six years, but he also acknowledges that his understudy has a long, long way to go. “He’s a four-year-old as a golfer,” Smith says lovingly. “He doesn’t know s--- about golf. He thinks he does, but he doesn’t.”
McLaughlin’s golf buddy, Eric Sach, raises another important point: Deep down, does McLaughlin have enough passion to ensure that the march to 10,000 hours won’t become an intolerable slog? “Yeah, the goal is there and he’s going after it hard,” Sach says, “but I think you really have to love golf. My guess is that will be pretty key if he’s going to do it.”
A couple of hours later McLaughlin’s first 14-club round at Columbia Edgewater, he was back at it, grinding on the range at RedTail Golf Center, on the other side of town. Evening was setting in and so was a chill as McLaughlin beat balls out onto the soggy expanse. He spent 45 minutes on a launch monitor, frequently pausing to examine his carry distance, ball speed, and launch angle. His aim is to match PGA Tour averages in all those categories. “My driver swing speed is 105-107,” he said at one point. “It needs to be 115-117.”
When Smith arrived, the pair moved to a private bay, with a flat screen, racks of demo clubs, and a space heater. The heater wasn’t on, though, and McLaughlin blew on his hands to keep warm. Smith explained that McLaughlin’s biggest flaw is that his body tends to get ahead of his swing. That causes the club to lag behind, leading to blocked shots.
“I’m working on feeling like there’s a plate of glass behind my ear, keeping my head behind the ball,” McLaughlin told Smith. “Kind of like hitting a baseball.”
“Good,” Smith said. “That’s good.”
It was getting late, and judging by his misses, McLaughlin was getting tired. But he wasn’t done yet, carefully calibrating his swing as he belted more balls into the dank Portland night. Sure, there’s always tomorrow, but when there’s work to be done, there’s no time like the present.
It all adds up
McLaughlin had spent some 2,533 hours on his mission as of Feb. 24. Here are some more numbers that he's accumulated along the way:
253,300: Number of shots struck (including putts)
160,000: Number of putts rolled
1,500: Hours spent on putting and chipping
300: Hours spent on the course
300: Hours spent in the gym
271: Number of blog entries written
102: Worst round since he started keeping score in December 2011
80: Best round
13: Number of books read about golf or learning
7: Number of pairs of golf shoes worn out
6: Number of wedges worn down