One Man’s Quest to Get on the PGA Tour

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.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.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.”“A lot of people expect me to be better than I actually am,” McLaughlin says, sitting on the clubhouse porch at Pumpkin Ridge. “But I’m just starting.” He pulls out a waterproof notebook filled with tiny scrawls, a daily record of shots made and missed. Whether he succeeds or not, he hopes his stats will provide a road map for the next person who tries to go pro. “It’s a long process, but we’ve got time.” Sometimes it means tearing down a whole part of his game and rebuilding it: “If you want to be great,” McLaughlin says, “you’ve got to let go of good.”

The implication of a slogan like “talent is overrated” or a story like McLaughlin’s is that anyone can become a top-notch golfer or guitarist or geneticist. In fact, the willingness to stop going to movies and eating out, the desire to spend a chunk of your life on a mission that might not pay off – those are rare qualities. Very few people are willing to spend 10,000 hours on anything that isn’t sleeping or watching TV. Some people tell McLaughlin that they can’t believe he’s spending six years training himself with no guarantee of a payoff. The incomprehension is mutual, since McLaughlin can’t understand why people stay for years at a job they hate. He meets plenty of people who don’t think he’ll stick with the Dan Plan for all six years.

I’m not one of them. I think his chances of turning pro are only a bit better than his chances of going to the moon, but I don’t sense an ounce of quit in him. His quest may not take him to the Masters, but it’s already doing what he wanted it to: turning him into a better version of himself.

The crucible of golf has burned away McLaughlin’s indecision and replaced it with passion. He and his girlfriend broke up, and she moved out, for reasons “not really related to golf,” he says, but honestly, everything in his life now relates to golf. “I don’t really care about other things,” he says. “I wake up; I think about it. When I go to sleep, I’m thinking about it.”

McLaughlin flips through his notebook, contemplating the last 24 months of his life, then shoves it into his pocket. “You can golf by playing two balls. People say your first ball is where you’re currently at, and then the best ball of the two is your potential. If I play best ball like that, I can always get a birdie. I know that ability’s in there, but summoning it for 70 straight shots – that’s a little harder.”

Maybe you should practice, I tell him.

McLaughlin nods, as if he had never considered the notion. “Yeah, yeah. Practice a little more.”

1. A Game of Golf Begins Before You Hit Your First Ball

“For a long time, the first two holes of a round were my worst because I wasn’t mentally there yet. I found that if I sit down and visualize the first two holes, walking through them in my head, by the time I get up to the first tee, it feels like I’ve already played a couple of holes.”

2. If You Walk Slow, Swing Slow

“Base the tempo of your golf swing on the way you walk. If you’re a slow stroller, never in a hurry, you’ll probably have a nice slow swing. If you’re like me, overly excited, you probably have a faster swing. One’s not better than the other, but one will probably come more naturally. If you’re off-tempo, your swing will be out of sorts.”

3. It’s Not About How Good Your Gear Is, It’s Getting Your Gear Tuned
“All modern equipment’s good. The important thing is not which clubs you get, but getting them fit for your body type and your swing, to see where you’re making contact with the ball. If your clubs are too short, you can add inches to the club or bend them – every one degree you bend is about an inch on the club.”

Update: Dan McLaughlin, One Year Later

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