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What Happened to The Dan Plan?

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In November of 2008, Malcolm Gladwell released a book that accomplished something very few books ever do – it changed our vocabulary. In his book, Outliers, he described success in ways that most had never thought about before. Gladwell brought the idea of 10,000 hours being the threshold for expertise.

In principle, Gladwell claimed that it took around 10,000 hours to master a skill. The Beatles mastered their art by performing in small dive bars in the U.K. night after night after night, eventually getting to 10,000 hours. Tiger Woods reached his 10,000-hour mark sometime before he got to Stanford.

The most interesting thing about this concept, though, is what people have done with it since Gladwell made the concept mainstream. Dan McLaughlin was a commercial photographer who quit his day job to pursue a quest of 10,000 hours of to see if someone who’d never played a full 18-holes of golf could reach the PGA Tour.

The Journey

McLaughlin tracked everything with daily blog posts, sometimes only a sentence or two. It started in April of 2010 with a simple first post:

“Day one: April 5, 2010. Went out and putted for two hours. Don’t have the ‘real’ clubs yet, but it still counts as a start! So, down to 9,998 hours.”

At the beginning of his journey there was some media buzz to see what would happen or if he was serious, and within a year or so people began to realize he was. The question soon changed from, “Is he going to stick it out?” to “Can he make it on tour?”

By the end of 2012, McLaughlin lowered his handicap to 5.9, a number less than 6 percent of golfers will ever see. In a blog posted December 31, 2012, he said:

“Great day to end the year. Found my mojo after a few day slump and played pretty well despite absolutely frozen greens that played like hardpan. Didn’t score super well, but found my drive and iron shots once again. It snowed for a lot of the day. 6,310 remain. Random Stat: Shot an 80 at Heron Lakes and about 5-over for 9 at CECC.”

After only 3,690 hours, a man who’d never played a full round of golf before 2010 shot 80 in the snow. How long is 3,690 hours? In normal metrics, it’s 92 full work weeks.

In a post on April 20, 2014, McLaughlin describes breaking a barrier that only approximately 1 percent of golfers will ever break.

“April 20: Easter Sunday, hid some eggs and did an Easter egg hunt in the morning and then made it for a round at 1 p.m. at Heron Lakes.  I didn’t warm up and just went for it and played what started as a pretty decent round then got better as the day went along. I managed to get in a decent position with my tee shots then either hit greens or be close to them and scrambled well. All in all shot the best round to date and was very happy about it. 4,968 remain. Random Stat: shot a 70 to finally break par!”

Just over half-way through the 10,000-hour journey, he’d broken par, but he was also four years into this journey and still had over 4,900 hours left.

The Beginning of the End

So, where is McLaughlin now? In another post from his blog on April 13, 2015, we can see the beginning of the end:

“April 13: I kind of hurt my back a little yesterday somehow, but had my Monday league play so after working in the yard through the morning (lightly) I went to Broadmoor and played a 9-hole match. It was absolutely pouring out and not much fun in the conditions, honestly. 4,013 remain. Random Stat: lost 2 down.”

Right there. “I kind of hurt my back a little yesterday somehow.” The rest of the post ignores the back issue, and he only mentions it again on April 15th, when he opens his post with, “The back is still a little weird, and I’m in the middle of moving still so had limited practice time today.” It’s unclear what happened to his back, but he goes into a little more detail on the Golf.com podcast from November 6, 2015.

If you listen to this episode, you’ll find that McLaughlin appreciated his break from the journey. It was “sort of a nice break,” he said.

In one of McLaughlin’s last posts he wrote:

“April 25-26: Played in the two-man two-day best ball tourney at Rose City with a friend. I thought the back would be better, but it took everything I had to try and hit a tee shot, and anything longer than a 7-iron from the fairway was instant pain…Need to see a professional tomorrow. 3,997 remain. Random Stat: I’ve never felt pinches like this.”

McLaughlin was stymied at just over 6,000 hours in five years. His initial goal was to complete the 10,000 hours by 2016, but he had higher expectations as well.

From the podcast interview:

“I thought maybe I’d get to scratch in about a year or something, so potentially I’m a little behind where I was hoping to be, but you know, you are where you are, and I have 4,000 hours left.”

I spoke with McLaughlin on the phone the other day and asked him what he learned from the journey.

“Golf changed who I am in a lot of ways, he said. “There is a direct correlation between how much time you put in and the results you see in your golf game. But it’s not just the hours; you have to have focused hours. You have to work on something specific with a goal each time you show up. The same is true in business or any other venture.”

At his playing peak, McLaughlin got his handicap down to a 2.6 index, which is fantastic golf by almost anyone’s standards. He first reached this peak in June of 2014, only four years after he’d begun. When I asked him what he thought about his game when he was at the peak handicap of his journey, he said, “I don’t think I reached my peak. When I hurt my back, I was playing well, but I was hitting the driver really bad. I never felt like I was able to put it all together. Other parts of my game that were good were sort of keeping me together.”

In June of 2014, McLaughlin had put in 5,145 hours of practice. He didn’t make it to the tour, but his journey shows that dedicated practice can get golfers closer to where they want to go.

The Future

There’s much to be learned from McLaughlin’s experience, and not just in a golf sense. It’s long been known within the self-development space that people enjoy life more when they have a personal quest. For some people that means running a marathon, 10 marathons or 50 marathons in all 50 states. For others, it’s about building a start-up and taking it to an IPO, bench pressing 300 pounds or winning their club championship.

McLaughlin never really set the goal of becoming a PGA Tour player, but he did want to see if the 10,000-hour rule could hold true. Could someone with no experience in a sport or another other venture put in the 10,000 of deliberate work and achieve what most would consider mastery status? But more so, he wanted something almost transcendental.

“When I started this journey, I wanted to inspire people to be the best person they could be,” McLaughlin said. “It was a journey about human potential, about my own potential.”

As we spoke on the phone, he told me that as the attention grew for his plan — which it did fairly quickly — he started to lose sight of his goal of inspiring people. It started to become more about the golf and shooting the score. He’d lost sight of his quest.

The interviewer on the Golf.com podcast asked McLaughlin if he had any regrets (at the time of the interview, he had been on a layoff for his back for over six months).

Interviewer: “There are no regrets, right? I mean, you’re happy you undertook this task?”

“I mean, it’s just, in so many ways it’s been transformative. It’s taught me a lot about life; it’s opened a lot of doors, you know I’ve met a lot of people through this journey. I’ve learned a ton, I think and all in all, it’s made me a better person.”

The golf didn’t teach him a lot of about life. It wasn’t the result of the shots or the result of the putts he hit; it was the quest. It was the day-in, day-out pursuit of something that helped him gain perspective and discipline, two things people can take with them the rest of their lives.

Behind all great achievements is a human on a quest. It’s why the greatest stories from our childhood have a character fighting their way through some sort of turmoil. It’s why, when people feel they have no purpose, they start reaching for something to give them purpose. Dan McLaughlin set out to prove or disprove a theory, but what he ended up doing is finding himself in the process.

Unfortunately, the last public update we have on his journey from his website is the last post from May 2, 2015:

“Just a bad week. Saw Chiropractor Seth and he said I was all twisted up in the hips and lower back and needed a couple of adjustments. First one was on Monday, followed by an easy Tuesday and then again in his office Wednesday. Late Wednesday night I came down with norovirus, which knocked me out completely for Thursday and Friday, so I scheduled the third adjustment with him this coming Monday. The back feels better, it’s just the lower right side now which is the final adjustment coming Monday. It’s been a long time off and not for a good reason, which is kind of a bummer, but better to get healthy than to risk deeper injury. After Monday I should be able to at least go out and chip and putt on Tuesday, I hope.”

That was over 18 months ago. When I spoke to McLaughlin on the phone, he was upbeat. He told me his new girlfriend had come across some media coverage of his journey (he met his girlfriend well after the back injury sidelined him) and he sat down and went through it all again and explained it to her.

“She told me she noticed a theme as we went through the old press stuff together, the theme was that it was about inspiring people,” he said. “I can definitely point to a time in my journey when I lost sight of that. But as I sit here today, I feel as though I achieved something worthwhile.”

The data on McLaughlin’s site shows that as well, but that’s what journeys are, right? They are a string of failures mixed with a few wins sprinkled in to keep us going, and if we stick it out long enough, we’ll find something important.

Unfortunately, McLaughlin may never make it to 10,000 hours.

“I went through months of physical therapy and I couldn’t even putt for six months because it hurt so bad,” he said. “I’ve just recently, in the last couple of months been able to play somewhat pain-free. I have started this new venture, and we’re having a lot of fun. I have tried to write the final post on the site so many times, but I can never seem to close it out. I would like to think that down the road when I’ve got the capital to fully commit again; I can make golf a full-time focus and maybe make a run for the senior tour. Who knows?”

mclaughlin-and-onstad-golf

McLaughlin (left) and his neighbor Chris Onstad, who together founded a Portland Soda Works, a craft soda company in 2012.

Even if McLaughlin never logs another blog post, it’s safe to say that he inspired me as a writer. I hope that if you’d never heard of his story until now that you look him up, read his blog and watch the press videos. His journey may inspire you to pick up something new or to rededicate to something of old.

McLaughlin learned a lot about being a better person and what it means to pursue something with everything you’ve got. And that’s a skill that may only require 6,003 hours to master, and it may take him further than golf ever would have. We’ll have to wait and see.

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Adam Crawford is a writer of many topics but golf has always been at the forefront. An avid player and student of the game, Adam seeks to understand both the analytical side of the game as well as the human aspect - which he finds the most important. You can find his books at his website, chandlercrawford.com, or on Amazon.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Michael Robles

    Aug 6, 2017 at 3:04 am

    I read Outliers in October 2012 and finished the book by December 2012. I immediately started the journey to 10,000 hours. I practiced 3 hours a day for 8 months and then ramped it up to 5 hours a day in August 2013. I practice everyday. I have not tracked my hours practiced but I mentioned that I practice everyday. So I’m probably 7,500 hours into the experiment. When I started I was shooting low 100’s and I am a 2 handicap now. It definitely works. I have made 2 major swing changes and that has slowed my progress. I didn’t receive pro instruction for my first 2 years. That was a huge mistake. If you’re interested in seeing my journey search HOOA on youtube. I vlog my journey and record all of my competitive rounds.

  2. Jocko

    Jul 1, 2017 at 10:19 am

    The 10,000 hour rule is separate from the talent component. Of course anybody will get better at something if they do it a lot. But imagine that we’re talking about the 100 yard dash. No amount of time is going to make a non talented person competitive with a talented one. It’s the same with golf, but less so. Putting and chipping and even the short iron game can be much easier to “master” than components of the game that require high club head speed, fast twitch muscle firing, etc.

  3. Ramrod

    Apr 5, 2017 at 8:42 pm

    I didn’t know Sean Foley was coaching him.

  4. Steve Wozeniak

    Mar 17, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    It’s not just the hours….it’s WHAT your working on and if he hurt his back it was the wrong stuff…talent along with athletic ability has a little to do with success at the highest levels as well.

    Steve Wozeniak PGA

  5. AnonGolfer

    Mar 17, 2017 at 11:55 am

    What’s missing from this is that the 10,000 hours rule has been known by many psychologists as a major misinterpretation of Erricson’s ideas…Erricsons ideas are more based on deliberate practice which he developed by playing chess as a kid

    • AnonGolfer

      Mar 17, 2017 at 12:00 pm

      Gladwell is also in record stating the 10,000 hour rule does not apply to sports

  6. Don M

    Mar 17, 2017 at 10:20 am

    I wonder if he has serious regret. I sure would. It’s one thing to pursue a dream. But to end up with a back injury is not a good tradeoff for becoming a good golfer. Not to mention the grind of it all.

    • Adam Crawford

      Mar 17, 2017 at 11:10 am

      When I spoke to him on the phone, he said he didn’t have regrets. He was obviously bummed because he was injured to the point that he couldn’t even putt. However, he felt like he’d gained a lot more out of the experience than getting better at golf, which I think is why a lot of us play the game any way.

  7. Anthony

    Mar 17, 2017 at 9:39 am

    A couple of points here for me:

    1. The book outliers is dumb. The book should have phased the 10000 hours thing like this: “10,000 hours being the threshold for expertise FOR YOUR POTIENTAL”. I do believe that if you put in 10000 hours at something, you will be the best that YOU will ever be at it, might even be able to call yourself an expert. But what about all those others that put in 10000 too at the same skill? What differentiates you with them? Talent. I just feel like the book gives all these false hopes by not setting the standard that TALENT is still needed. Golf as an example, if there are 2000 golfers in the world with 10000 hours of dedicated practice, what separates the 200 on the PGA from the other 1800…you guessed it, TALENT.

    2. you mean the golf swing breaks down the body? It’s not just working out in the gym and heavy lifting that will hurt a golfer’s back? Someone please please tell this to that idoit Chamblee. I bet Tiger has logged between 20000 and 30000 hours of golf practice throughout his life. That will really break down your body quick.

    • Victor Su

      Feb 27, 2018 at 7:38 pm

      Talent does matter, but I disagree with the part you said about PGA tour. You do need talent to be the best on tour, but you do NOT have to have talent to make it on the tour. Dan’s goal was to make through Q-school to just have a PGA membership card, which is something hard work alone can definitely can get you to even though you are not talented. So if your goal is just to be on the tour making enough money to stay for next year and so on, unless you are super extremely stupid, you can definitely make it by putting enough hard work. But that’s gonna be A LOT OF work though.

  8. Jim

    Mar 17, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Even the most enthusiastic backers can’t buy someone ‘the gift’ of supreme talent. 40 years ago maybe…enough to grab a couple sponsors (75K from FJ for shoes & hat) 50K from ‘Tommy Armour or Lynx’ for bag n clubs….small time peanuts now, but enough to keep up with travel, phone, car payments, food and entry fees…..NOW GO WIN – OR finish emough top 20’s to make some extra money.

    sorry man, life sux then you die.

    not everyone gets through BUDS – not the big time Annapolis football hero – it’s the GRUNTS that pass…maybe never won the 10 mile run, never finished an evolution first… just NEVER QUIT, TAKE THE PAIN and finish top 20…

    no pressure, expenses paid, you know you’re playing next week ’cause your entry fees paid and your not sleeping in your car – cause you can’t afford a motel….

    bottom line – just not good enough. Period. Now go away

    • Jim

      Mar 17, 2017 at 10:36 am

      I WILL GIVE HIM THIS…..sheeit…wish I thought of it – get a bunch of good ol boy sportsman type ‘betting men’ to finance your self indulgent / blogger ‘arteest’ career change and basically pay for you to become a great recreational golfer….

      …I wouldn’t have had to sell off my most valuabke possessions and (most of) my gun collection to finance me quitting my job & playing golf and practicing all day when I turned professional…

      kinda brilliant 😉

  9. stevep1000

    Mar 16, 2017 at 10:49 pm

    The guy had a compelling story, and sought followers and financial support from his followers. It’s remarkably weak that he abandoned the plan and his followers without so much as a comment on his website.

    • toad

      Mar 16, 2017 at 10:57 pm

      Agreed. Gotta man up, as painful as it may be.

  10. toad

    Mar 16, 2017 at 10:40 pm

    He inspired my to become an expert daytrader. I fizzled out like Danny boy did. Moral of the story: Getting 10k in is tough.

  11. S Hitter

    Mar 16, 2017 at 8:58 pm

    !0,000 hours AND a bottomless pit of cash is what you need in golf. Unless, if he was smart enough, he was gambling while he was playing some of those rounds making cash on the side to pay for some of the rounds. The theory doesn’t quite correlate well with The Beatles, lets say, or musicians, because musicians can sit at home with their guitar or piano and tinker for 10,000 hours without spending any money getting good at it, unlike in golf. So, yeah, it’s shank for the this guy, because he should have also illustrated how much money it cost him to get to where he did. Including the costs of the doctors he had to see to get his back fixed, which is where a lot of guys also lose their enthusiasm, because it costs so much money without making any of it back, unless you’re competing on the Pro level and winning some of it back. He could have learned a lot about himself without doing that through golf

  12. LandofBoz

    Mar 16, 2017 at 7:51 pm

    Gladwell actually said that experts have put in at least 10,000 hours, not that it took 10,000 hours to be an expert.

  13. TheGrftKngs

    Mar 16, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Reminds me of the book “Paper Tiger” which is based on the same premise: a real-life journalist who devoted himself to earning his Tour card within a year. Just finished it and loved every minute.

    • Scott

      Mar 17, 2017 at 9:13 am

      Paper Tiger was a fun read. I will say that the guy in this article seemed more delusional than the guy who wrote Paper Tiger.

  14. TR1PTIK

    Mar 16, 2017 at 3:20 pm

    I followed the Dan Plan closely as well and felt that his enthusiasm for the game started to dwindle towards the end. There always seemed to be something that would sideline him or hold him up a little bit. If nothing else, his journey certainly inspired me to put more concentration and effort (and hours) into the things that are important to me. I think the ability to inspire others is a much more meaningful (though maybe not as rewarding [$]) accomplishment than getting on tour. Best of luck!

  15. Sega69

    Mar 16, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    Makes you appreciate tour pros even more. Feel bad for him re injury and it’s a great story, but even guys with talent, money, hard work and luck don’t make. I’ve met lots (as I’m sure many of us have) of mini tour guys and college players that can shoot 65 and win club c’s but even they will tell you that the pros are in a different stratosphere. Unrewarded talent is almost a proverb.

  16. TechnologyGolfer.com

    Mar 16, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    I too used to follow the Dan Plan and read probably 50 posts or more. I was pulling for Dan even though I knew it was a longshot. I’m sure he’ll get something positive from the experience though, and would do it again if he could.

  17. farmer

    Mar 16, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    He quit his job, started practicing, lived off savings and donations, has gotten to be a good golfer, but nowhere near elite. Had he spent 10000 hours working at photography, (his real job) he might be mentioned with Ansel Adams.

  18. Nick

    Mar 16, 2017 at 1:00 pm

    Check out Anders Ericsson who is the original person to talk about 10,000 hours. Deliberate practice with proper feedback will make those hours successful.

  19. AceW7Iron

    Mar 16, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Can totally relate to the part about specific focus on certain parts of the game being the key to lowering your scores. I have played alot of golf in the last 12 months and only temporarily dipped below a 10…as I look back on 95% of the occasions I played it was just show up to see who I was THAT day…not really focusing on parts of my game that would make me better tomorrow.

  20. MiloTheMarauder

    Mar 16, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Never heard of this dude or his book and it just goes to show you. People have to take care of their bodies better or get that magic juice that brings American football players back from ACL tears in less than a year.

  21. birdie

    Mar 16, 2017 at 9:35 am

    i think this shows how naive non golfers are on how quickly you can become a scratch player. plenty of people who see the occasional golf highlight on espn or watch some Masters coverage who’ve never really played and think the game doesn’t look all that hard.

  22. Jim

    Mar 16, 2017 at 9:30 am

    There’s a WRX forum article about this as well, that was started over a year ago. IT was a good idea and an interesting follow, but back injuries aren’t fun and can derail a golfing ambition.

  23. Adam

    Mar 16, 2017 at 9:17 am

    I read that 90% of PGA tour players have some sort of back issue. Typical back can’t last 10,000 hours I guess.

  24. KillerPenguin

    Mar 16, 2017 at 8:45 am

    I used to follow Dan closely and was really sad for him when he broke the news about the back. While I don’t think he was ever going to make it through Q School and the Web.com Tour and onto the PGA TOUR, his approach to the game and thought provoking posts were always enjoyable and often inspiring. Pour one out for the Dan Plan!

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@john77cj7

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High School reunion golf: When 58 feels like 18 again

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golf buddies reunion

Eric and David were winning our match as we approached the halfway point of the back nine at Falls Road Golf Club in Potomac, Md. But when my partner, Chip, yes, chipped in for eagle, their 15-footer for eagle suddenly seemed doubly long. David’s exuberant fist pump after draining his putt to match us said it all – the juices were flowing, and the match wasn’t going to be lost due to lackluster play or attitude. That we were paired together in a reunion tournament 40 years after the Class of 1978 graduated from Winston Churchill High School mattered not. We were athletes then – all four of us played on a Maryland state championship football team together – and, by gosh, our competitiveness was on full throttle now.

The years melted away as we traded stories about yesteryear and we learned about each other’s lives in the four-decade interim. Family and golf are shared passions, and our match showed it. While we were happily catching up in laughs and nostalgia, both teams clearly wanted to win. For bragging rights, of course. Once competitors, always competitors.

Cut to the past: David and Chip went on to play college baseball, while I stayed briefly with football, and Eric went forward playing basketball. Eric was such a gifted athlete that he not only quarterbacked our high school team to a senior year state championship (we also won it our junior year), he led the basketball team to a state title as well. A hoops scholarship to Georgetown followed, where he captained Coach John Thompson’s team his senior year. His teammates included Patrick Ewing, now Georgetown’s coach, among others. If you want to see Eric in action, Google “Michael Jordan game-winning jump shot in national championship.” You’ll find video clips of Eric (pictured below) running at Jordan a hair too late to stop His Airness from elevating and nailing the game-winning jump shot for North Carolina.

georgetown university north carolina national basketball championship 1982

Eric gets there too late to stop MJ’s game-winner in the national championship.

All to say that competition and living the athletic physical life contributed to our formation as people, and while we’re well removed from our peak years, we continue to pursue the pleasure that such activities afford. I’m still playing competitive baseball, and I’m trying to get David to join my team for the coming season, and a few other guys who I ran into at the reunion party the next night – Jimmy Flaikas, Mitch Orcutt, and Brian Hacker. How great it would be for us five former high school baseball teammates to be back on the diamond together. Priceless!

Jimmy and David have concerns about the physical demands, among other things, and whether their bodies are up to it. They’re both in great shape, so I’m confident they would do well. But they’re wise to weigh this carefully; discretion is the better part of valor when aging, after all. And that’s why golf is ideally suited to our current places in the circle of life. No torn meniscus or sprained ankles to be suffered, no concussions or broken bones forthcoming. Instead, we carelessly joked and competed with joyful appreciation of reconnecting through the game during our reunion weekend.

That golf is a lifelong game is one of its most appealing aspects. Perhaps it’s even an after-life game, as two elderly gentlemen illuminated. Lifelong friends now in their 80s, one of them fell deathly ill. His friend visited one last time and they reminisced about the good times shared through the game. As they parted, the friend said to his dying companion, “Do me a favor – let me know if there’s golf in heaven when you get there.” His friend promised he would and then he passed on peacefully that night. The next night, his friend was sleeping when he heard a voice. “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, there’s golf in heaven; the bad news is, you have a tee time tomorrow morning.”

Fore! Now and forever.

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