Dan McLaughlin spends six hours a day, six days a week at the golf course in the hopes of going pro – in six years.
Dan McLaughlin spends six hours a day, six days a week at the golf course in the hopes of going pro – in six years.
Credit: Photograph by Jake Stangel

Today, under the gray Oregon skies, McLaughlin gets ready for work. He rubs his hands together to ward off the chill and opens the trunk of his silver Hyundai, revealing a pair of muddy shoes and a bag of golf clubs. Four clubs, to be exact: a sand wedge, a pitching wedge, an 8-iron, and a putter.

McLaughlin specialized in taking pictures of dental equipment. Unsurprisingly, he grew bored. He had saved up $100,000, earmarked for business school, but when he went to his first finance class and realized it was going to be devoted to learning Microsoft Excel, the prospect of an MBA started making him physically ill.

McLaughlin considered other options: becoming an architect, getting a medical degree, starting a sparkling-water company ("I'm really into carbonated water"). Eventually he realized he wasn't the only person trying to break free from the gravitational pull of an established career – he longed for a trajectory that would inspire not just himself but other people as well. "I wanted a challenge that was nearly impossible, but theoretically possible," McLaughlin says. So, golf.

McLaughlin called his project "the Dan Plan." One friend gave him a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller 'Outliers'; another presented him with Geoff Colvin's 'Talent Is Overrated.' Both books draw on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University. The 140-character version of Ericsson's research: Becoming a world-class expert in any field, from software design to concert violin, requires 10,000 hours of practice. Usually that means 10 years of hard work or "deliberate practice," but McLaughlin wants to cram the hours into six years. Ericsson says that nobody has ever tried to log their 10,000 hours at as late an age as McLaughlin, and he cautions that spending the time "does not guarantee that expert performance is attained." In other words, in 2016, McLaughlin might not have anything more than calluses.

McLaughlin walks to the driving range at the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in North Plains, Oregon. The oxygen here seems to be permeated with money. While his fellow golfers sport new Nike gear, McLaughlin wears threadbare gray khakis with holes. He has cut his expenses so he can play golf all the time and says he owns just two pairs of pants.

He greets his coach, Christopher Smith. While McLaughlin is a slender 5-foot-9, Smith looks like a jock, tall and broad-shouldered. He regards McLaughlin with an amused distance.

"My lag putts are good on the course but not in practice," McLaughlin reports.

Smith shrugs. "Stop practicing your lag putts. Seriously," he says.

McLaughlin takes some swings. Some are square and solid, some veer off, and some are hozzle rockets, violently squirting low and to the left. Here's what McLaughlin doesn't do: visibly react to any of them. Whereas you or I would probably chortle at the good shots and curse at the bad ones, he just squares his shoulders and takes another swing.

Smith lays a large yellow plank on the ground, forcing McLaughlin to modify his swing or smack his club into the plank. Smith says, "One thing that really motivates people to change is pain." McLaughlin hits the ball perfectly, and it sails onto the fairway. He allows himself a small smile.

"I'll just bring a two-by-four to my practice sessions," he says.

"Hit yourself over the head with it," Smith suggests.