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.
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