Can 10,000 Hours of Practice Turn a Novice into a PGA Pro?

Last Updated Apr 29, 2011 6:12 PM EDT

Dan McLaughlin, golfer-in-training
Earlier this week I talked to a guy named Dan McLaughlin. Up until last year, Dan was a photographer in Portland, Ore. Then he came up with a plan: He'd quit his job and try, through 10,000 of practice, to become a PGA Tour player.

The theory behind The Dan Plan, is this: Talent has little to do with success. He's basing this off research conducted by Florida State University psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, that in order to excel in a field, you must complete 10,000 hours of "stretching yourself beyond what you can currently do." (You might recognize this idea if you've read Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers.")

I have to admit, as someone who's worked his whole life to get on the PGA Tour, I was skeptical of The Dan Plan. But I couldn't wait to talk to this guy. Here's a condensed version of our conversation:

Scott: How in the world did you come up with this thing?
Dan: The original plan happened in Omaha, Nebraska, around my 30th birthday. I'd saved up $100,000 to either go back to school or go on a trip. At same time I'd always had this calling deep down that I could be a golfer. What I really wanted to do was something completely different than anything I'd ever tried before. I wanted to show people that hard work can get you anything in life if you just put in the hours. So I decided to get some clubs, get some teachers, and see if it's theoretically and physically possible to make the PGA Tour.

Scott: What was your first day like?
Dan: I went to this course that was about 10 blocks from my house and it was just dumping rain and about 37 degrees and I didn't have real golf shoes or a real putter - I just had this $5 putter that I got at a grab bag. I had no clue what I was doing. All I knew was that I wasn't allowed to putt from further than one foot away. So I basically spent about five hours out there freezing my fingers off and putting close to the hole thinking, 'what in the world have I gotten myself into?'

Scott: A year later, what have you learned about what it takes to be a pro golfer?
Dan: My whole first year was about learning how to learn. Going out there and just banging balls doesn't get you anywhere. You could hit a hundred thousand balls on the driving range -- if you're not cognitively engaged and thinking about what you're doing right and wrong, you're going to be exactly where you started off when you end. Nothing is easy in this world.

Scott: But obviously you don't think it's impossible.
Dan: I always want to say that by no means am I trying to belittle what it takes to become a PGA Tour golfer. On the contrary, this is just going to show how impossibly difficult it is.

A lot of people miss out on achieving something great because of that word "talent" -- they say, I'm never going to be this because I just don't have the talent. That's kind of what I'm trying to dismiss and prove. Guys like you, it's not that you're just born an amazing golfer; it's that you've gone out and plugged away your hours and paid your dues.

Scott: I started playing golf when I was three and I grew up with it my whole life. Obviously there are exceptions, but everyone I know as a professional began playing at a very, very young age.
Dan: There's no research on someone trying to pursue something like this in his thirties, but there's a ton of research on people who have learned an endeavor -- say athletics, academics, or music -- through their development, from 3 to 20-years-old while they're growing and while their brain is growing. It's pretty obvious that it would help you if you're learning while your body is physically developing.

Scott: That puts you at a pretty big disadvantage, doesn't it?
Dan: I wouldn't really say that I'm at a huge disadvantage now -- outside of the fact that you guys put in 10,000 hours by the time you hit 20-years-old. So you just had a long time to spread it out and get really good. You guys are jogging and you're about a marathon in front of me. I'm trying to sprint to catch up. It's going to be a difficult journey but if I just stick to it, it's hard to say what's possible and impossible.

Scott: I know of one exception. His name is Trevor Murphy and he went from never having swung a club at age 18 to the Nationwide Tour five years later. It's very impressive.
Dan: That gives me hope.

Scott: Where are you now in your plan?
Dan: The good thing about having a six-year plan is that I'm not in a hurry to actually play golf. Currently I have a pitching wedge, a 56 degree, and a putter and I play golf from a hundred yards [away from the hole]. But probably this week I'm going to get a fourth club -- an 8 iron. I hope to get a new club once month until I have all 14 in my bag. As soon as I can play a full round with all the clubs, it's going to be all about competitions, building my nerves up, and getting used to playing when there are consequences.

Scott: And at the end of the six years?
Dan: My goal is definitely the PGA Tour card and to be one of the top 250 players in the world.

Scott: What happens if you fail?
Dan: I have no secondary or alternative plan. The way I think about it is, if you're thinking about a fallback plan -- and I'm sure you'd agree with this -- then you're setting yourself up to fail. Five years from now is completely abstract and nobody knows what's going to happen. The only thing I can do is get a little bit more efficient with my 20-foot lag putts today.

I didn't have a backup plan either, Dan. I commend you -- it's a pretty incredible project. Know that you now have a fan on the PGA Tour. Good luck!

Readers, what do you think? Does Dan have a shot?

(Photo courtesy of The Dan Plan.)