Putting the Dan plan into practice

SOMETIMES you wake up with a bright idea and just go with it.

Usually however, a half-baked notion doesn’t require you to quit your job, empty your bank account and play golf for 30 hours a week, for the next six years.

Meet Dan McLaughlin. The 30-year-old is currently 12 months into a programme he calls The Dan Plan. You’re gonna like this guy.

On April 5, 2010, he packed away his camera, quit his job as commercial photographer and walked out of the dark room into the light.

So began what they might call in his trendy, left-leaning hometown of Portland: ‘a journey’.

McLaughlin (he says he’s a mix of Irish and Scottish but possibly some Welsh too) bought a set of clubs, headed for the nearest public course and clocked hour one in a what he hopes will be a 10,000 hour trek to the pros. The complete novice has set himself the goal of winning a PGA Tour card by the end of the 30-hour per week process.

The 10k hour mark is not one he plucked from his golf bag. The writer Malcolm Gladwell — we’ve spoken about him here before — has made the theory somewhat famous. The New Yorker magazine journalist quotes the young Beatles honing their craft in Hamburg, Beethoven writing middling symphonies as a kid, young Europeans landing in downtown Manhattan with years of practical business experience tucked in their back pocket and ultimately retiring to a penthouse in midtown years later.

But Gladwell is merely the prism with which many of us first viewed the theory that applies to sport so powerfully. The man who first shone a light on it was the impressively-titled Dr K Anders Ericsson. He’s the professor of Psychology at Florida State University.

“Elite performers engage in ‘deliberate practice’ — an effort-ful activity designed to improve target performance,” he wrote with an academic’s love of jargon. But strip it away and he could have been thinking about Joe Canning volleying a sliotar off a gable-end wall, David Beckham curling football after football over a cardboard silhouette wall or Tiger Woods pitching buckets of Titleists as the sun dipped on another day.

When Dan explained the laughably ambitious goal he’d set himself — to become a PGA pro, having never held a putter — Ericsson said with a smile: “I think you’re the right astronaut for this mission.”

He sure sounds it when he picks up the phone to me this week, having just come in from his morning session.

“It’s an experiment to test how far you can go purely with hard work,” he says in explanation. “It’s a way to tell whether the idea of talent exists. For me I really wanted to see how much potential was in one average person. And I do see myself as an average person.”

For the record, he says he has no previous experience as a competitive athlete, nor is he in “particularly good physical condition”.

McLaughlin comes in under average height and weight, had never played a full 18 holes of golf before this idea occurred to him, and had only been to a driving range a handful of times. Lefty or righty? He didn’t know that either.

“What I wanted to do was put all my energies into the 10,000 hours into one field and see how far we can go,” he continues. “And I wanted to do it in my 30s because most of the research is in people who train from 10 to 20 or whatever. So it’s during the teenage years and the brain, we know, is developing and it’s somewhat easier to learn and absorb.”

But why pick golf? Isn’t there easier ways to make a point?

“For a number of reasons. One was pretty basic: being outdoors is very appealing to me. I spent plenty of time working inside and wanted something outside. I also wanted to do something that was basically nearly impossible. There’s a chance of success but it’s minute. There’s only a couple of hundred PGA tour cards in the world.

“If I had chosen to be a doctor or an architect it would still be a real challenge and a feat but there’s thousands of them. Its not quite as compelling as something where there’s a really really slim chance of it working out.”

Logging in 30-plus hours a week, he will hit the 10,000 hour milestone by November 2015 he reckons. At that stage the Dan Plan stipulates he will win amateur events and obtain his PGA Tour card.

“Judging by the progress of the time I put in over the past year, its gonna take six years but at the same time I only putted in the first five months. So I think the time will be a greater from here on.”

Time flies when you’re having fun: McLaughlin says he’s falling ‘more and more in love with the game every week”. We agree to meet up at the Ryder Cup in a half a dozen years or so; though he’s working harder than I to get into the press room. I put down the phone and promise myself I’ll swing a club myself this weekend.

* Keep track on his progress at TheDanPlan.com

- Contact: adrian@thescore.ie Twitter: @adrianrussell

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