Two years ago, at age 30, Dan McLaughlin quit his job as a commercial photographer in Portland, Oregon, hoping to become a pro golfer — despite never having played a full round of golf in his life. Since then he’s been learning to play, six hours a day, six days a week. His goal: cracking the PGA Tour by 2016.
Initially, Smith didn’t like McLaughlin. “The first time I met Dan, I was insulted,” Smith says. “I told him, ‘Do you have any idea how hard golf is? Go play tiddledywinks.’ ” But McLaughlin kept coming back: At their second meeting, they discussed Ericsson’s precept of expertise requiring 10,000 hours of practice. Before their third meeting, McLaughlin not only had read Ericsson’s academic work, he had also talked to the professor on the phone. Convinced of McLaughlin’s serious intent, Smith took him on.
Smith saw his mentoring of McLaughlin as an opportunity to reinvent the teaching of golf. Given a willing student and thousands of hours, what was the optimal method? He told McLaughlin that he’d gradually work away from the hole. When he had mastered a one-foot putt, he could move back to three feet, and then five feet, and so on. “I thought it sounded like a good idea,” McLaughlin says. “I didn’t know that meant I would only putt for the first five months.”
McLaughlin started the Dan Plan two years ago and became notorious at his local municipal course as the guy who showed up six days a week with his own sandwich, carrying a bag with a single club, putting for six hours a day — even in the pouring rain, when it was just him and the greenskeepers. Winter in Portland is wet. So are spring and fall. “I would be the only guy out for entire weeks,” McLaughlin says.
After five months, Smith allowed him a pitching wedge. After two more months, the sand wedge. “I literally have never even touched a driver,” McLaughlin says, almost bragging. He thinks that if he had started with a full set of clubs, he might be burned out by now, but a new challenge every few months keeps up “the passion and the momentum.”
McLaughlin’s swing started with a simple instruction from Smith: “Hit the ball.” Since then, Smith has given him a couple of pointers or modifications every week. McLaughlin spends 45 minutes every morning focusing on the biomechanics of his new swing: 15 minutes in slow motion, 15 minutes at half speed, and 15 minutes full out. But McLaughlin needs to focus on what he’s doing: Sloppily driving balls for an hour (or 10 hours) might be cathartic, but it wouldn’t make him a better player.
Conrad Ray, coach of the Stanford golf team, says, “There are players who come late to the game who are superathletic and are able to play at a competitive level.” Which seems encouraging — until you discover that by “late to the game,” he means “in the eighth grade.”
“I would never quash a man’s dream,” says Brandel Chamblee, former pro and now an analyst at the Golf Channel, when considering McLaughlin’s mission. “But he forgets that every 30-year-old golfer right now is also playing and practicing, doing all the things he wants to do. So at age 36, even though he would have practiced, he’s getting into the age where he’s losing his athleticism. You need extraordinary abilities to play the Tour, and then you need to do more with those gifts than everyone else around you.”
“Everything’s easier when you’re younger,” says Jane Clark, with a sigh. She’s a professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland. “Think about the massive amount of work the body has to do for a golf swing. Well, if you try to learn that when you’re 30, it’s very hard. It’s never too late to learn a second language, but you probably will always have an accent. And you’re not going on the pro circuit.”
McLaughlin says the only way he’d consider the Dan Plan a failure is if he stops before he logs his 10,000 hours. He is not worried about getting bored, but has been working out to reduce the possibility of serious injury. He’ll run out of money in a couple of years, but he has faith that some sponsors will emerge by then. (So far, Nike has helped him with some free equipment.) But the ultimate mark of success would be getting onto the PGA Tour — a tall order, considering there are just 125 slots.
“Every day it’s a little more possible,” McLaughlin says of the Tour. “When I started, there was a zero percent chance, and now I’m up to maybe 1.3 percent. But that’s astronomically higher than zero. At the end of the year, I could be up to a three percent chance.”
Scott Stallings, a 27-year-old on his second Tour, has one of those 125 coveted cards and has paid attention to McLaughlin’s quixotic mission. “I think he’s unique for being willing to try this,” Stallings says. “And by unique, I mean crazy. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.” Pressed for a number, Stallings confidently says, “Twenty-five percent.”
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