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Dan McLaughlin is testing the theory that practice, not innate talent, makes a star. He's got 7,600 hours to go.
Published Jan. 30, 2012

A year ago, Dan McLaughlin spent hours every day at the St. Petersburg golf course Mangrove Bay, putting, putting, putting. He was not quite a year into what he calls the Dan Plan.

McLaughlin had decided at 30 to try to become a professional golfer on the PGA Tour. He had never played the game. He had almost no interest in the sport. What he really wanted to dowas test the theory that anybody could become expert at anything with 10,000 hours of measured, deliberate practice.

The resident of Portland, Ore., quit his 9-to-5 commercial photography job and started living, frugally, on about $100,000 of savings. He came to Florida because of the warmer winter weather. A story about him and his plan ran last March in the Times.

How many people had ever attempted something similar? To start this sort of self-study at such a late age, and with no experience at all, and to keep records, and to last as long as he had?

"I like where I am in life right now," he said at the time, with 8,803 of the 10,000 hours to go.

And now?

Still going strong.

He has 7,600 hours left.

He has a different girlfriend - same coach, though.

Christopher Smith, a Nike-affiliated instructor in Portland, considers this an interesting experiment, too. He has been teaching McLaughlin how to golf in an unconventional way: 1-foot putts before 3-foot putts, 3-foot putts before 5-foot putts and so on.

Last year at this time, McLaughlin had just three clubs, and he was playing from only 50 yards away from the hole.

Eventually, after going home to the Pacific Northwest, he made it to 75 yards, then 100, then 150.

He played his first round on April 15 at the Heron Lakes Greenback course in Portland. Using three clubs - two wedges and a putter - and shooting from the front tees, he scored 89.

Smith didn't let him have a full set of clubs until December.

Since the story in the Times, McLaughlin has been written about in Sports Illustrated's Golf Plus, Bloomberg Businessweek, Portland Monthly, Psychology Today and a golf magazine in Norway. He's been on the local news in Portland. He's been on the Golf Channel. He's been on CNN International.

He went to Johns Creek, Ga., last year to watch the PGA Championship. It was the first time he had ever been to a golf tournament. He's talked to PGA Tour player Scott Stallings. He's played with LPGA player Allison Hanna.

His coach calls him "the ultimate student."

"He's changed me," Smith told Bloomberg Businessweek. "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.' "

The Dan Plan is going to take six hours a day, for up to six days a week, for six years. That hasn't changed. Neither have the odds of him playing on pro golf's top tour. They are still stupendously long.

What's he shooting now?

Low 80s on his best days, he says. His handicap is 11. Not bad, and he's not even a quarter of the way through his 10,000 hours.

After playing two rounds with McLaughlin, economist Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame assessed his progress this way:

"He is about 15-16 strokes per round away from being good enough for the PGA tour. That means he has to shave off about one stroke for every 500 hours of practice from here on out.

"I suspect he can keep that rate of improvement for the next few thousand hours, but it will be a tough haul after that."

"I've learned a lot about patience," McLaughlin told Portland Monthly, "but the most important thing I've learned is you've got to get the ball in the hole."

This ongoing pursuit for McLaughlin continues to be a question for the rest of us: Is talent made, not born? Can you be anything you want to be?

Maybe he will make the PGA Tour, or maybe he won't. But this, of course, is not ultimately about golf.

"I've learned a lot in the past year," McLaughlin said the other day on the phone.

"But hopefully everybody learns a lot in a full year."

Is he still totally committed to the Dan Plan? He answered the question by saying the same word four times. Yes.

Michael Kruse can be reached at or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.

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By the numbers

4: Pairs of golf shoes he has used

240,000: Estimated number of swings ("at the very minimum," McLaughlin says)

89: Score on his first full round of golf

11: Dan's handicap

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On the Web

To read the March 27 story about Dan McLaughlin, go to