Dan McLaughlin thinks 10,000 hours of focused practice will get him on Tour

December 9, 2011

Dan McLaughlin, a 32-year-old bachelor from Portland, Ore., is trying to go from never having touched a golf club to the PGA Tour. The time frame of McLaughlin's journey from ground zero to the Tour is about six years, the amount of time it will take him to accrue 10,000 hours of dedicated practice,  with practicing golf being his full-time avocation. He calls this the Dan Plan. But why 10,000 hours?

Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State. Ericsson claims that excellence in any discipline is dependent on dedication, not talent, and that it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to excel in a field, a theory that gained widespread exposure after it was featured in Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book Outliers. McLaughlin began his quest in April 2010, and so far he's completed 2,300 hours. He expects to reach 10,000 hours by the end of 2016.

Has the novelty of your grand experiment worn off?
It's been 20 months, so this is what I do now. I didn't start playing golf, I mean playing rounds on a course, until August. Now that I finally get to place my ball on those little white tees, I'm much more into it.
Was it hard to wait that long to play?
It was and it wasn't. Because I'd never played before, I didn't know what I was missing. That's why it wasn't so hard to hold back on touching a driver for 19 months. Having never done it, I didn't have anything to wish I could be doing. My practice routine, to me, was golf.

Now that you've played rounds and hit drivers, what's it feel like?  
Judging from a few days of hitting a driver, the only thing close to a really nice drive is sinking a 40-foot putt. A great drive is unparalleled.

What's playing a round like?
There are huge ups and downs. Hitting good shots is incredible, but once you start hitting into trees, it can be the most infuriating and frustrating game on the planet. For me, it adds so much to my weekly and daily routines to field-test myself and see how what I've been doing has paid off. So it's rewarding in that way.
What were you doing before you had the idea for the Dan Plan?
After graduating from the University of Georgia, I became a journalist. I was a photographer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press for two years. Then I branched out into commercial photography, first in Atlanta, where I grew up, and then I moved to Portland.

What was the genesis of the Dan Plan?
It dawned on me one day that people have always said that you can pursue something only if you're a certain type of person. For example, you can become a math professor only if you're analytical and good at math. But I realized that people were just limiting themselves as an excuse to not pursue things. That inspired me to try something completely different from anything I'd ever done. I wanted to prove that anything's possible if you're willing to put in the time. I eventually found Dr. Ericsson's 10,000 hours of deliberate practice theory, and decided to do that.

Why golf?
I thought about tons of things. I have a deep interest in instruments, mainly piano and drums, and also singing. Finance was an option, so was architecture. But I needed something that was measurable and visually interesting so I could tell the story. Also, I wanted something I'd never done to prove a point. Golf is seemingly impossible, but theoretically possible to make it to the highest level. And I liked the game's simplicity: ball, stick, hole. You're judged on a number of strokes. There's nothing subjective about it.
Did people believe you when you told them you were quitting photography to become a Tour player?
People didn't think I was serious. Most people thought I was joking. But I was dead serious.

What about your family?
Mom and Dad knew I'd give it a shot, but they didn't realize the severity of my devotion. It took about nine months before they were completely supportive.
How do you survive financially?
I always knew I wanted to do something special in life that would involve taking off time from work, so I saved hard for six years working as a photographer. I try to keep my expenses below $2,000 a month, and that includes my mortgage, food, phone, golf lessons and the rest.  I live simply but I feel completely comfortable. For example, I don't drink, so when I go with friends to happy hour, I can get a good meal for $10. My friends drop $40. I also never see movies in first-run theatres, and I own outright my car, a pimpin' 2006 Hyundai Elantra

Have your goals changed since you started?
My first goal was to get all the way through every club and be playing rounds in year one. That didn't happen. Long term, the goal has always been to play on the PGA Tour, to play in at least one event and make the cut. Looking ahead, I'm a 12 handicap now, and I'd like to get down to a mid single-digit handicap by 3,000 hours, which is about 700 more hours. A year after that, I'd like to be a one or two.

Do you have idols?
Reinhold Messner, the mountaineer. His theory is to always push and try something new. If you try a summit and don't make it, that's OK. Keep notes and share them so others can bag the summit. I already know ways I could have improved my process. At first, I think I was too limited in using different clubs and actual golfing experience. All I did for the first nine months was putt and chip. I didn't touch anything but a putter and wedges. It could have been a boon to my learning by utilizing more of an immersion factor.
Have you been successful so far?
Yes, though the progress is different than I imagined. I've constantly grown in game, learned a lot about myself, and I've stuck to it. That's progress.
Where do you play?
Columbia Edgewater Country Club was amazing and gave me a membership.

What's your routine?
I have a morning workout, then I come to the course. I spend an hour working on different clubs on the range, but I'll have a specific purpose like trajectory. Then I do an hour on the short course, then maybe play nine holes at the big course. When I play, I like to use a game hitting multiple balls on certain shots, and then I'll play the three worst lies. After lunch, I work in the short-game area for a while, followed by another hour of putting. At the end of the day, I like to play holes with people. I do this six days a week. Sessions with my coach, Christopher Smith [a teacher at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland], and other instructors are mixed into the days. I take off Saturdays, because they're the busiest day at the course.

What counts toward the deliberate practice hours?
If I'm thinking about golf, then the time counts. If I spend 10 hours a day at the course, maybe six will count toward the 10,000.

What are the hardest and easiest things about golf for you?
At first, I had a real fade, and getting more of a draw tendency was hard because I had to lower my swing plane, which isn't easy. The takeaway has also been one of my hardest things. I had a tendency to abruptly pick up the club with a big out-to-in takeaway. Now it's nicely grooved. Maybe the hardest challenge is overdoing things. Christopher might ask me to do X, but I'll do X plus three. Finding balance isn't easy when I have so much to learn.

Are you afraid of burnout?
Christopher and I talk about it a lot. Sometimes you need a mental break to recharge and refresh the brain. There've been times when things are tough; I'm just hitting everything horribly and nothing works. I feel beat up and worn down. Now I know to take a couple of days off. It happens once every three or four months. When I come back, I always play the best I ever have.

Do you have sponsors?
Nike provides all of my gear, which helps a lot. And Edgewater made me a member. That's it.

What do you make time to do besides golf?
Not much. Golf is my full-time-plus job. I'm kind of a quiet person. I spend time with my girlfriend. I also read a good bit. Part of my work involves inspirational reading, documentary watching. I have a mental coach, Fran Pirozzolo, who provides different material — movies about Hogan, autobiographies of Derek Jeter. That's the last thing I do any day. I also enjoy reading other things. I just finished a book by Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars. The main goal in reading is to keep the mind stimulated.
Have you taken a vacation?
A few little breaks, but nothing major. This year, I went to a wedding. Also, my girlfriend and I spent four days in Montana in August. I was having a particularly hard month, and a friend lent me his cabin in Bend. That was the first "nothing to do" time I've had since starting the project.

What are your next challenges?
Now that I've had the driver in the bag for a few days, my immediate goal is to get to the point where it's controllable. Of course, I'm always pushing forward on the short game. This winter the main goal is to just work on contact and strength, so in the spring I can push forward and enter competitions.
What's been the reaction to your project from people in the golf world?
The only Tour player who's reached out to me was Scott Stallings. He called me a while ago and we had a good rap session. He was really encouraging. I've found that the better the golfer, the more encouraging they are to me. Dudes who've put in 35 years and are still 5-handicappers tell me it's impossible. The most amazing golfers are the most encouraging, and that's a good sign. Scott had the same theory about his approach. He was all or nothing, and he made it.

Would you like to spend more time with Tour players?
In the next couple of years, I'd like to find anybody on a tour who's open to practicing and playing so I can experience what their days and weeks are like. At my club, Allison Hanna from the LPGA plays. We play once in a while, so I see how she practices and plays. It's the whole idea of modeling. If you don't have a concrete image of where you need to be, it's easy to get lost.

Learn more at TheDanPlan.com.  McLaughlin maintains the site himself, posting weekly webisodes, practice plans, detailed statistics about his progress, a blog and videos.