Dan McLaughlin’s introduction to the game of golf began three years ago when he wondered if the public golf courses in his area would allow him to use their practice greens for hours at a time each day.
What makes McLaughlin’s story compelling isn’t the fact that he knew hardly anything about the game, or that he learned the most basic fundamentals of scoring – making one- and two-footers round and round the putting green. It’s that he quit his job in Portland, Ore., as a commercial photographer to focus on playing golf full-time. McLaughlin, a self-described 30-year-old of average build and marginal athletic talent, now carries a single-digit handicap. It only took him about 3,000 hours to reach a level that one out of every six golfers ever gets to.
McLaughlin, however, isn’t remotely satisfied with his progress. He isn’t interested in playing at his club’s next member-guest and carving his name into the winner’s plaque. You don’t quit your day job, the metaphorical equivalent of jumping out of a plane sans parachute, to be a quasi folk hero in your home town. McLaughlin is one-third into a 10,000-hour experiment that ends with him playing his way onto the PGA Tour. Should he succeed, he’ll be a 36-year-old rookie on the circuit. It’s an advanced age to make one’s debut, but certainly not outlandish. Allen Doyle and Jim Rutledge earned their cards as 47-year-olds. But Doyle and Rutledge were life-long golfers with solid amateur and professional records. McLaughlin will be attempting to break golf’s version of the sound barrier after a scant six years.
In terms of his development as a golfer, the 2013 season is going to be a key moment in the odyssey known as The Dan Plan. He has a full-season of tournament play in front of him and his goal is to be competitive.
“I want to play in at least 20 tourneys this year, but am not sure how many I will be able to afford,” McLaughlin said. “I’ll play in everything that is realistic to enter and want to play in all the big ones in Oregon such as the Oregon Am and Mid-Am, (and the Pacific Northwest Golf Association) Am and Mid-Am. My approach will be different in that I know what to expect this year and have a goal of shooting in the 70s. Last year I played in my first five tournaments ever and the only goal was to gain experience.”
McLaughlin won’t be in any position to consider a run at Q-School at the end of this year, but a full season of tournament play will give him and his team plenty of metrics to analyze as they tweak both practice and fitness routines for the next phase of his development. More importantly, his tournament performance will reveal something critical the numbers can’t measure — can he play his best golf when there’s something on the line?
A Game Of Numbers
The idea that would end up being The Dan Plan started to sketch itself about a year before McLaughlin quit his job. He began building up his savings over a five-year period to put towards business school. It took one finance class to make him reconsider his options. So instead of thinking about meal plans, books and lectures, McLaughlin began thinking about courses, coaches and clubs. The algebra he came up with, assuming he spent his money wisely, would allow him to dedicate the next four to six years of his life to chasing a little, white ball.
McLaughlin chose to play golf for some less-than-obvious reasons. He wanted to be outdoors and he didn’t want to do something that would eventually become boring. He also liked how golf held individuals accountable for their own successes and failures and, most importantly, it was unlike anything he had ever done before. As far as having any connection to the game, McLaughlin would’ve been hard-pressed to name 10 players on the Tour even after spotting him a Tiger and a Phil. All things considered, McLaughlin could’ve randomly decided to pick up a tennis racket or a bowling ball. For it wasn’t so much a passion for golf that interested McLaughlin as it was discovering what he calls “the human potential.”
The idea that hard work, in particular the concept of deliberate practice, can trump innate talent has been written about at length in the following best-selling books — “Talent Is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin and “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle. The basic premise of both books is that talent isn’t born, it’s made. Success is ultimately achieved through persistence, sweat and a proper use of one’s time. A third book of note, and the one that heavily inspired McLaughlin is “Outliers: The Story Of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell. In the book, Gladwell claims that the key to success in any field, to a large extent, is the ability to practice a specific task for a total of about 10,000 hours.
Can someone, if they are willing to train consistently over the course of that many hours, become a bona-fide golfing savant? Anyone who has ever played the game long enough might scoff. There’s a reason why so few golfers, even those who excelled as juniors, ever have a sniff at the Tour, let alone make a successful career playing at the highest professional level. Whether through naiveté or over-exuberance, McLaughlin was unfazed by the daunting odds. But when it came to convincing others, such as his first golf coach, it was definitely a tough sell.
“To be honest, I had about 15 seconds for him, maybe 10,” Christopher Smith, lead golf instructor at Pumpkin Ridge told Golf Magazine in an interview. “I was kind of offended by how easy he thought this was going to be.”
McLaughlin’s foray into golf had a genuine Dickensian quality. His gear, courtesy of Nike, consisted of two pairs of shoes, a hand-me-down rain jacket and an off-the-rack Method putter. Lessons and practice consisted of learning to putt and rolling 100 balls from inside a 3-foot circle. At first, McLaughlin struggled to hole 80 percent of his putts. After about a month, he was averaging over 90 percent and steadily increasing the distance.
A repertoire of different putting games kept McLaughlin’s practice sessions from getting stale. One of the games he played, called the “6-foot call shot,” consisted of rolling the ball from four different spots six feet away from the hole. Before addressing the ball, McLaughlin would “call out” which part of the hole he was aiming for as well as the speed at which the ball would drop. McLaughlin cut his teeth on the putting green week after week, finally adding chipping practice deep into the summer.
“Initially, I don’t think Chris thought I would stick to it, but after a year of just chipping and putting he knew I was serious,” McLaughlin said.
Imagine spending three months just working on holing putts. While other weekend golfers warm up for 10 or 15 minutes on the practice green before heading out to the first tee to battle their chronic slice, McLaughlin is wearing out the face on his putter.
We’re Talking Practice
Ask an aspiring recreational golfer how much better they’d play if they just had the time to practice all day long and you’ll likely hear a grand tale about winning tournaments and breaking course records. Then ask that same golfer if they’re willing to practice up to eight hours a day, six days a week, come rain or come shine and they might need a minute or two think it over.
McLaughlin may have come into the game without truly understanding the rigors of golf, but there was nothing bush-league about his dedication. In addition to the thousands of hours he’s logged standing over a golf ball, McLaughlin has spent a significant amount of time at the gym training like a world-class athlete. His workout routine consists of equal parts strength training, cardio and plyometrics. Olympic lifts, squats, lunges, hip rotations, torso twists and medicine ball throws make up a fraction of the exercises that have allowed McLaughlin, who weighs a modest 150 pounds, to generate 998.2 watts of power (Average Power = square root of 4.9 x body mass(kg) x square root of jump distance(m) x 9.81). To put into terms a golfer can appreciate, McLaughlin swings his driver in excess of 105 mph. He and his physical therapist, Shawn Dailey, are hoping to get his swing velocity up to Tour-level standards by the end of the year.
“I’ve seen many golfers who have come and have years of pain, playing with pain and changing their swing around pain,” Dailey said. “Dan has the advantage that he’s a blank slate. We can develop a very efficient, strong swing for him. A lot of his strength and power exercises revolve around his legs, his glutes, his core.”
While it must seem like fun to be able to workout and beat range balls day after day (minus the paycheck), the risk of burnout is great. The honeymoon period of The Dan Plan came to abrupt end after about eight months. At that time, McLaughlin was still limited to practicing with a pitching wedge and putter, and playing golf from inside 40 yards. He was also facing his first winter in Oregon as a golfer when the average temperature is usually 40 degrees and the playing conditions are almost always wet. On his website blog, McLaughlin asked himself a very basic question. “So, Dan, why are you doing this to yourself? And, if nobody else cares, will you still follow through?”
He considered quitting.
“Like anyone who is starting a business it can be tough to juggle everything in your life,” McLaughlin said.
The day after feeling miserable about his situation, he ventured out to Heron Lakes in the rain. Out there on his own, McLaughlin saw a tree fall to the ground without any obvious provocation. It immediately reminded him of a quintessential philosophical question — can something exist without being perceived? Maybe it was pure accident or maybe it was serendipity that caused the tree to fall. Either way, the tree left an impression, no pun intended. McLaughlin would occasionally write about experiencing fatigue and needing a short break from golf, but he would never get as low as he had that first autumn.
McLaughlin reached his first major milestone a month later, surpassing the 1,000-hour mark. In the spring of 2011, McLaughlin began to hit full shots with his pitching wedge. He also began working with a sand wedge. He didn’t look like much of a golfer slinging a mostly empty stand bag across his shoulders, but McLaughlin was coming close to outgrowing his beginner status.
A key point in his development may have occurred a couple of months earlier when McLaughlin visited the IMG campus in Bradenton, Fla. — a heralded golfing academy that has graduated notable alumni such as Paula Creamer, Michele Wie, Sean O’Hair and Peter Uihlein to name just a few.
McLaughlin went to Bradenton to measure his training against what world-class juniors are able to receive when budget isn’t a limiting factor. He was also able to observe some of the best teenagers in the country strike balls with machine-like precision. McLaughlin admitted that he felt intimidated, but he left IMG encouraged about his future.
“Back then I only had three clubs and had never even made a full swing,” McLaughlin said. “I didn’t even know what it meant to play golf, just chipped and putted and had no clue what this wonderful game is all about. Back then I wanted to join those kids in ripping drives and now that I am confident on the course I would love to go back and play with or against them.”
After one year, five months and four days on the plan, McLaughlin passed the 2,000 hour mark. He wasn’t yet competing in tournaments like he had originally, and wrongly, predicted when he first started. But he was feeling upbeat about his progress. As for his relationship with golf, what started off as awkward as a blind date had turned into a genuine love affair. Days spent putting and chipping were now being augmented with rounds at Heron Lakes and Columbia Edgewater.
“I think once I actually understood the game and was playing the game I started developing a passion for it,” McLaughlin said. “I was completely hooked.”
McLaughlin was now carrying seven clubs (a putter, 56-degree, 52-degree, pitching wedge, 8-iron, 6-iron and a 3-hybrid). He was playing from the white tees and posting scores in the 90s and 80s. As the year drew to a close, his handicap fell to 11.4 with strong showings in his final two rounds in which he posted scores of 82 and 83.
Nearly two years of laborious and focused practice had gone into turning McLaughlin into a golfer. It’s a number most avid golfers who take up the game later in life can’t fathom. And while McLaughlin understands that the average person can’t commit the same time or resources into their game as he has, he thinks everyone can benefit by being more attentive to their practice habits.
“No matter how much time you have, practice interweaving,” McLaughlin said. “Try to not hit the same club twice and if you do, reset your brain by going through your routine each time. We learn optimally by having to adjust to new situations and circumstances and hitting ball after ball is nothing like the actual game, so practice randomly and with consequences.”
The Tipping Point
McLaughlin’s new wedges arrived at his doorstep a few weeks ago. He posted a photo of his new clubs (still in their shrink-wrapped plastic) on Facebook. He made a few giddy remarks on Twitter. With his initials “DM” stamped in a random pattern along the sole of his 46-degree, you couldn’t blame McLaughlin for feeling a little bit like a rockstar, especially if you’re treated like one by the crew at Titleist.
McLaughlin toured the Titlelist headquarters in Carlesbad, Calif., in February. There he saw the racks of Vokey wedges that serve as an equipment archive for the some of modern golf’s greatest players. He met with “Voke” himself, and had his picture taken with the legendary craftsman. Later on he stopped by the Oceanside Test Facility and learned enough about lofts, bounce angles and grinds to fill a small textbook.
He also underwent a rigorous two-hour fitting in which he executed everything from bunker shots to bump-and-runs. The club-fitters at Titleist built four new clubs for McLaughlin. Two of them are standard SM4 wedges (46 and 50, each with eight degrees of bounce). The other pair (54 and 58 degree) are Vokey TVD grind. All four wedges have True Temper Dynamic Gold S200 shafts and Golf Pride New Decade Multicompound grips in green. McLaughlin, who must’ve felt like a child at a toy store, hopes he can return to Carlesbad for a full club fitting, seeing as how some his older clubs are no longer adequate for his swing.
Life has changed in some subtle and not so subtle ways for McLaughlin. In his blog, McLaughlin occasionally talks about reaching a tipping point. Coincidentally or not, the same author who penned “Outliers,” wrote an earlier work called “The Tipping Point” which describes how certain social conditions combine to bring about change quickly and unexpectedly. In terms of reaching critical mass, The Dan Plan is still in the early stages of gaining notoriety, but the days of rolling putts on soggy greens in relative obscurity are drawing to an end.
Over the past year McLaughlin has been gearing up for tournament play. His first official event was staged at Pumpkin Ridge, the site where the LPGA plays its Safeway Classic and where Tiger Woods won his unprecedented third consecutive U.S. Amateur. A gallery of sorts consisting of an AP writer and two cameramen watched a nervous McLaughlin shoot an 86. A decent score for a golfer getting his first taste of competition.
As McLaughlin has evolved, so has his team. He and his first coach severed ties last July over what McLaughlin describes as a communication rift. His relationship with Nike, which wasn’t an official relationship at all, also came to end around the same time.
“Nike decided to go with Rory instead of The Dan Plan and I have to admit that his chances of winning a major are a little better than mine,” said McLaughlin, jokingly. “[We] parted amicably. I appreciate how generous they were to provide my first set of clubs and wish them continued success with their new gear.”
McLaughlin and his new coach, Adrian Burtner, began working together last October. Last winter they started using TrackMan to enhance their training sessions. McLaughlin, in particular, has been engrossed with posting combine scores. The TrackMan combine consists of hitting 60 shots to nine different targets at various distances. Your score is tabulated based on how precise each shot is executed. In a lot of ways it’s like taking aim at plastic ducks at a carnival — only much, much harder. A good score for a Tour professional is an 83. McLaughlin, by comparison, posted a 66.9 his first time through the simulator. TrackMan has also allowed McLaughlin to accurately measure his swing efficiency for every club in the bag.
While a huge component of The Dan Plan revolves around golf-specific training and improving his performance on the course, McLaughlin is increasingly spending time raising awareness and securing additional funding. Although McLaughlin has enough money squirreled away to theoretically finish his project, his self-funding strategy will greatly limit his opportunities to gain exposure and further enhance his training.
“I would really love to start playing in the smaller mini tours as early as this year if possible,” McLaughlin said. “Depending on budget, I would like to enter a couple gateway tour events to get a taste of what golf is like at that level. From there the goal would be to play in a full series of them next year and follow that with Q-School.”
In the past, McLaughlin has limited himself to accepting donations online through his website. But he and his newly hired publicist have been investigating alternative forms of fund raising including speaking engagements and corporate sponsorship. McLaughlin has also raised a few eyebrows when he recently issued a public challenge to Michael Phelps to play against him in an exhibition match this summer. There are some people who have been following The Dan Plan who feel that the Phelps match (should it ever happen) might detract from the project’s mission and its sincerity.
McLaughlin will certainly feel pressure this year. His tournament performances will be judged and graded. If he finds and accepts corporate sponsors, he’ll be expected to make good on that investment. There are countless examples of golfers who end up being derailed by expectations — both internal and external — rather than by lack of ability or desire.
There are plenty of individuals that would take great pleasure in watching McLaughlin strike out on the mini tours. But there’s an even greater contingent of supporters who have been following his story. People genuinely love an underdog and McLaughlin is probably the biggest underdog since Rocky Balboa. And while’s he not expecting anyone to unveil a bronze statue in his honor, McLaughlin would love to see a day that his wedges earn a place on the Titleist archive rack next to all the others that have been swung by the best in the game.