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It’s unclear if Dan McLaughlin will ever be a great golfer, but he is very, very good at self-promotion. He got Nike (NKE) to sponsor him as a golfer even though he had never hit a golf ball or watched a golf tournament on television. McLaughlin decided to become a professional after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, which examines K. Anders Ericsson’s study that says it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to master any skill. So, right after turning 30 last year, he quit his job as a photographer for a marketing company, built a website, hired a coach, and decided to live off the $100,000 he had saved. He’s now on the “Dan Plan,” which involves golfing for 10,000 hours—which will take six and a half years of full-time commitment—with the goal of becoming one of the roughly 250 men on the PGA Tour out of the more than 60 million golfers in the world.
In July, McLaughlin passed his 1,700th hour. His instructor, Christopher Smith (ironically, the speed golf champion of the world), decided McLaughlin would start at the hole and work his way out. Slowly. So McLaughlin spent the first three weeks doing nothing but putting from three feet away. Smith wouldn’t let him progress to bigger clubs until he’d mastered the small ones. He had only four clubs in his bag—he was stuck on mastering the eight-iron. When he told people at parties that he was a full-time nonprofessional golfer, and they didn’t walk away, they often asked his handicap: “I say, ‘Oh, I don’t have one. I’ve been practicing for 15 months, but I’ve never played a game.’ People assume a slight bit of insanity.”
It takes a lot to be suspected of insanity in Portland, Ore. Portland seems like a dumb place to learn to golf, since it rains most of the year. But it’s a great place to treat your life like you’re the star of your own quirky indie movie. When McLaughlin explains the Dan Plan, “people don’t bat an eye,” he says. “And because I picked golf, it deters some people from being interested. If I decided to cook vegan hot dogs on a double-decker unicycle while home-brewing beer with pedal power, there would have been a lot more excitement.” Yes, he has already contacted the producers of Portlandia, a comedy series on the Independent Film Channel that makes fun of how earnest and twee Portland is. He’ll appear in an episode next season.
McLaughlin was able to save $100,000 on a pretty average salary—and buy a house—because he is clearly more than 10,000 hours into thriftiness. Sure, he’s done well in the stock market, buying Apple (AAPL) shares at $17, and he’s filled his house with roommates to pay the mortgage. But mostly, McLaughlin just doesn’t spend. He’s never paid for a single golf item, either getting stuff from Nike or finding equipment on the ground at courses. In fact, almost everything in his house was found. “He doesn’t buy food,” says his neighbor Chris Onstad over a lunch that McLaughlin wasn’t paying for.
“I do,” McLaughlin objects.
“Bagels,” Onstad says.
McLaughlin’s plan is to get his PGA card by joining a local mini-tour and going to Q-School, where thousands of amateurs compete for a tiny number of PGA spots. After he wins his first PGA tournament, he plans on quitting and mastering something else for another 10,000 hours. He hopes to become an inspirational story, told through a documentary he has been shooting footage for.
Although he may yet be the first to succeed in his mission, he’s not the first to try. Just a few years ago, a guy named Jon Fitzgerald decided at age 40 to put 10,000 hours into his golf game and made a documentary about it, The Back Nine. He lasted three months. So when McLaughlin called Ericsson at Florida State University, where he teaches psychology, the creator of the 10,000-hour rule figured McLaughlin would also quit soon after starting. “Nobody has done it, which means nobody knows how it’s going to wind up. He’s like Columbus,” Ericsson says. Sure, Ericsson has inspired memory champions, such as Joshua Foer, who wrote about it in Moonwalking with Einstein, but the competition wasn’t nearly as tough as golf: There aren’t 80 million people spending their weekends playing memory games. Ericsson believes that only deliberate practice—intensely focused time spent trying to improve—causes progress. “Most people on a job spend 10,000 hours and they are at the level they started out,” he says. “You can count the hours people drive and you’re not going to see a high correlation to skill. You have to try to stretch yourself and attain higher levels of control.”
Smith, McLaughlin’s coach, assumed the tedium of his teaching strategy would make McLaughlin quit. “It’s not that original of an idea,” he says of the Dan Plan. “I probably get a couple of these a year where somebody is like, ‘I’m going to stop everything and play on the PGA Tour.’ Most of them are wealthy. They fizzle out.” He thinks Dan’s chances of making his goal of playing on the Tour are “borderline astronomically small. He’s going to be playing against guys with 30 years of tournament experience,” Smith says. “My goal is that he does the 10,000 hours before he shoots himself in the head.”
Still, Smith is considering getting rid of all but his richest clients and becoming McLaughlin’s full-time coach. “He’s changed me,” Smith says. “I’ve had other students and I say, ‘What you’re going to do is watch Dan McLaughlin today. He’s not great, but I want you to watch how he practices.’ It’s like watching someone who is a great studier.”
The thing is, McLaughlin is a quitter by nature. He quit playing tennis as a kid, quit after a year of high school cross-country, isn’t entirely sure he graduated from the University of Georgia, and quit being a newspaper photographer after one year. He has started five novels.
But he’s way more focused on golf—and now the experiment has taken its own momentum. He counts only about six hours a day, six days a week as official hours, but he probably spends 50 hours a week on the Dan Plan if you include workouts with his official trainer, reading about golf, and entering his meticulous stats from his notebook into his spreadsheets. He already is an inspirational story for a lot of fans who find his website. He gets several e-mails a day from people who want to quit desk jockeying just like he did. McLaughlin has no intention of letting his fans down by not finishing his 10,000 hours.
The only person more sure than McLaughlin that McLaughlin will succeed is Richie Gallagher, a sales training specialist in Phoenix who has donated $400 to McLaughlin and intends to give more. He says he’ll be stunned if McLaughlin doesn’t make the Tour. “To practice what you’re not good at, that can suck,” he says. “People who engage in deliberate practice—I’m going to guess they have a passion for life in general.”
McLaughlin played his first round in August, but it wasn’t until this month that he got his final club—the driver. Immediately after getting one lesson with the club, he drove five hours to meet Steven Levitt, the co-author of Freakonomics and a fan of McLaughlin’s blog, who invited him to play his first real game at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon. It did not go all that well: He shot in the mid-90s, twice.
McLaughlin remains upbeat. He’s added, on Ericsson’s recommendation, a mental coach, who works with former Masters champion Bernhard Langer—to make sure he’s doing the kind of deliberate practice Ericsson suggests. He’s working to put on 10 pounds of muscle to improve his swing speed. And finally, after having never seen a tournament either live or on television, he went to the PGA Championship in August to watch. “Since then I’ve been talked into getting cable and the Golf Channel,” McLaughlin says. “Well, I don’t have it. My girlfriend got cable.”