Dan McLaughlin is the man behind The Dan Plan, a golfer striving to “test” the “10,000 hours to become an expert” theory espoused by a few. His goal? Become a PGA Tour golfer after 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.
I have obsessed over the Dan Plan right from the beginning. Well, maybe obsessed is a strong word, but I have definitely given it a great deal of thought. I was introduced to the idea by a friend who was a member at Dan’s first club Columbia Edgewater Country Club. He told me there was this guy out there practice putting everyday. His goal was to put the 10,000 theory of deliberate practice to the test. As an engineer, I was immediately drawn to the experiment.
Recently, Dan was introduced to the outstanding book Lowest Score Wins by Erik J. Barzeski and David Wedzik and as luck would have it I had an extra copy and was in the Portland area. I offered it to Dan and also the opportunity for an interview with questions coming from the forum members here on The Sand Trap. He happily agreed. Opinions on Dan here on the forum are mostly leaning toward the pessimistic side, primarily because his stated goal of playing on the PGA Tour is lofty. Calling it “lofty” is probably being nice. Perhaps Dan’s goal is closer to fantasy. As such, many of the questions target not only why he chose such a nearly impossible final target as well as why he started with one-foot putts and hit them for so long.
In meeting Dan McLaughlin, the first thing I learned was that Dan is a really nice guy. He regularly plays now at Riverside Country Club and, sitting in the grill room with him, he regularly said hello to his buddies, asked them about their games, and behaved as I would describe it as a “regular” golfer.
He has also now played enough golf that he knows how hard the goal he has set for himself truly is. When he started, I suspect Dan had absolutely no idea how taxing this effort was going to be, both financially and physically. In talking with him I can see that reality has set in. He still has an optimistic soul which he feels must be quenched to at least finish the plan, but I get the sense that everyday that goes on he learns just how far he will need to travel to get to his goal. I know he is not saying that he knows he is going to fail, but he knows it is a very tall mountain with much left to climb.
So with that let’s get to the interview. Many thanks to the forum members who supplied the questions.
The Sand Trap: There is a large amount of interest in how you are going about deliberate practice: mirror work, video, etc. What is your method and what details can you share about how you go about your “deliberate practice?”
Dan McLaughlin: For me, this is working on targeting a specific area or weakness in my game. For example hitting 120-yard shots and trying to figure out a way how to improve that, whether it’s seeing a coach, slow motion, or whatever it is. It is mostly figuring out your weaknesses and improving them. A big thing that I work on now is figuring out how to translate practice results to results out on the course. Like right now I am hitting the driver pretty well. And recently I spent two or three days specifically working on FlightScope trying to actually hit up on the ball, and then I started hitting the driver all over the place. When I first started working I was six degrees down, which meant the ball was going straight but not very far.
So right now I am working on figuring out what kinds of practice translate to on-course improvements. A lot of it is visualization, so pretend like you are playing a course with specific targets, so I need to hit a draw here, and then I overdrew it so I need to work on a low punch shot, I got a lot of that from Vision 54. At some point you need to give up on the idea of mechanics, but first you need to get your mechanics to a specific level, and then work on taking it to the course.
TST: One of the biggest sources of controversy on the TST forum is how you started the plan: with one-foot putts. For someone starting out is this how you recommend they start?
Dan: With the putting, yeah. I really only did one-footers for one day. I had never touched a golf club and my coach at the time… and when I talked with different learning professionals and I asked them “if they had a student, how would they teach them golf?” and the general consensus was start at the hole like a kid and move away. We set goals for percentages and it took a lot longer than I thought to get to those certain percentages especially for 5- to 10-foot putts and after a few months I knew that I needed some variations so I started moving on to pitching wedges and chipping.
TST: I can imagine it is hard to focus on putting for such a long time.
Dan: Yeah, plus you’re on the same greens all the time. In retrospect I don’t think I would have done it the same now as I did back then.
TST: So that leads to the question what would you have done differently?
Dan: I wouldn’t have started playing right away, but I would have had say five or seven clubs. Spend 15 minutes putting, then 15 minutes on full swing mechanics, then maybe 15 minutes on bunker shots. Not all of this on the first day, but I would have added a lot of variation as soon as possible. Probably in the first six months even up to 12 months I don’t know how much of that practice actually translated into who I am now. Because I have changed all of my mechanics and how I do things from that time. It is all part of learning. I would have definitely started learning driver sooner, because that swing is still kind of the weakness of my game.
TST: What do you foresee as your relationship with golf once the Plan comes to an end?
Dan: Golf has completely changed who I am. Before this, I wasn’t into any kind of sports endeavor or athletics at all. It has brought me to tons of different places and introduced to tons of amazing people, I have a whole new slough of friends. All my friends are golf related now. And you can compete for the rest of your life. Like today for example I am competing with a 65-and a 70-year old and the match will probably come down to 18 so the competition is always there. I don’t think that my relationship with golf will change whether I successful with the Plan or I finish as a scratch golfer. I enjoy the game and I enjoy the competition and no matter how good or bad the round was as soon as you walk off the course you are ready to go again. You can be completely demoralized for four hours and then ask your buddies what time do we play tomorrow?
TST: What are the three biggest mistakes you feel you’ve made so far?
Dan: When I started I was in marketing and I made the assumption that I would be able to find a sponsor pretty quickly. I did not think it would be this difficult to find a sponsor. I mean I have made it work so it hasn’t been that big of a problem, but still. Everybody wants to know how you find the money to do this and you need to be completely self reliant. What I have learned, in something like this, in an artistic piece like this, you’re only going to find funds once you are successful. So you need to be willing to do it on your own and stick it out.
TST: Well you know that the number one reason why guys give up trying to play on the PGA Tour is they run out of money?
Dan: Yeah, and it gets more expensive the higher up you go. Like I just paid $400 to play in this Monday golf league which is at this nice but inexpensive public course in Portland and that’s so expensive. And then I am paying like $150 to play in this other tournament in two weeks, and all of that is pennies in relation to what I would like to do. I would love to go down to the desert and play in high-quality tournaments. I have buddies who play down there and they are spending twelve hundred dollars a weekend and only the top five guys out of like 100 make any money back. This is an area where I thought I would have an advantage, through my blog and social media activity I would get some exposure. I figured I would be able to get some money to enter those things but that has been extremely hard. But the money can at times be very hard, you have to remind yourself that nothing in life is free.
TST: And what else with respect to mistakes?
Dan: I would have started out adding in more variability earlier on. I would go out and just play at the beginning. The start should be done working with a coach figuring out a swing before you just go out there. I mean I have had pretty good swing coaches along the way but I have still fallen into the habit bubble where once you learn something improperly it takes so long to correct it. I would develop something wrong and then just do it and do it and do it and then would have to work so hard to correct it.
TST: So what are the three smartest things that you have done?
Dan: Making it public with the blog and publications, especially in the first year, there were so many times where I was saying to myself what the hell are you doing? And since I announced it to friends and family and made it public, it kinda kept me engaged. It helped propel me. Also finding a good equipment manufacturer to work with me. I have found all of that through social media. Last would be joining a golf club. It gives me an avenue to play with regular competition. If I wanted to I could play competitive money rounds seven days a week and you can play fast. Otherwise you head to a public track on the weekend and play five and a half hour round. I just think joining a private club for golf access and practice wise was a smart decision.
TST: If you had more money to work with what would you have done differently?
Dan: I would live in Arizona or Southern California and I would work with a coach at least once a week. I would be looking to a place where I could find higher caliber players or rather people who are really working towards the same goal of playing professionally. So when I was down at the Vision 54 thing in San Diego it was at this resort and there was this guy who had just won the U.S. Amateur, not sure, something like that, he was out there every day and the whole time he was out there he was with a world-class coach with him and I thought to myself, “how do I compete with that?” His parents had bought him a membership and were footing the bill for everything and every day he is there getting world-class instruction and improving things. It is just so daunting to see that, that there are so many people like this out there that have so much money and can practice at world-class facilities with world-class coaches.
TST: The goal you set for yourself, playing on the PGA Tour, is lofty. Why not set something easier to accomplish like winning a U.S. Amateur or your club championship? Couldn’t you define “scratch” as being an expert?
Dan: Well, that was my goal starting out and I feel that you need to set your standards high. My goal has been to play in a PGA Tour event and make the cut. I am not going to assume that I am going to be one of the top 125 players in the world, but if I can get my skill set to plus two or three and then get a sponsor’s exemption and then play well on Thursday and Friday and then play on the weekend I think that would kind of prove the whole point.
TST: But I could argue that even playing in the U.S. Amateur and getting to match play would have proved your point. You would already be in the top 1% of golfers.
Dan: Well that would be amazing.
TST: As of right now what is the biggest thing holding you back?
Dan: Finances. Not having the ability to hire the best coaches and work with them regularly.
TST: Are you burned out at all?
Dan: Some days I am a little more sore than others, but I still love the game.
TST: Do you think it would have made more sense to do more research on instruction or golf or even just the numbers of golfers at different ability levels on the Internet before starting the Plan?
Dan: I actually just went with the first coach I found because I didn’t know anything about instruction. It is hard because when you are starting you don’t know anything, I didn’t know the difference between loading on your rear leg and Stack and Tilt. I didn’t know any of that. It’s all gibberish to someone coming into the game. I still today don’t know what would be the best swing. I now know that it is extremely important to find the right instructor.
TST: Why do you think in the early portion of your Plan you struggled so much in tournaments?
Dan: In a tournament there is just such a difference mostly due to the pressure you put on yourself in the beginning.
TST: How do you plan to manage that going forward?
Dan: Just play in more. I just want to get the most experience you can get in that area.
TST: The comments on your blog… why do you limit most of them?
Dan: I really get two kinds of comments. One where people are being encouraging telling me they love what I am doing or the other saying that I have no chance in hell and I am doing this all wrong. I really try not to read all of them. My neighbor who does some work where people can comment told me right from the beginning to not pay much attention to all of the comments because most people just want to tear you down.
TST: Do you think you are at the right place in the Plan? Is it progressing at the rate you expected?
Dan: My original goal or hope was to be around scratch at the half-way point. I am like three strokes off of that handicap wise and I would definitely like to be more around par on a regular basis.
TST: So now that you know you need to catch up, what is your Plan?
Dan: I don’t know. I am just trying to figure it out right now. Should I move somewhere or what I should do to find the right place and the right person. I need to immerse myself. Being here in Portland I worry that I am getting sedentary and to grow I need to put myself in an uncomfortable position.
Getting the chance to meet and talk with Dan was a great experience for me. Dan has pretty much confirmed for me that golf is the greatest game there is. It will give you success, failure, extreme happiness, and outright failure all in a four-hour time block. Dan McLaughlin is on a journey that anyone who is serious about the game must and will undergo. Where Dan’s journey ends is up to him.
Photo credits: © Angus Murray