Introducing The Dan Plan

Introducing The Dan Plan

Psychology February 01, 2012 / By Dan McLaughlin
Introducing The Dan Plan

The Dan Plan is a project testing one human's potential. The vehicle for the experiment is golf, but the spirit is in testing the limits.

In April, 2010, I quit my job in an attempt to become a professional golfer. I was set in mind and determined it would be possible when walking away from a well-paying gig as a commercial photographer in Portland, Oregon. The only caveat was that I had zero experience with golf and basically no experience with athletics in general. I was, and am, pretty much average by most standards. 5'9" and 150 Lbs, played a bit of tennis as a kid, ran cross country freshman year of high school then took to different interests for the remainder of high school and through university. I wasn't exactly a couch potato, but was much closer to that than to Usain Bolt.

Regardless of what I did with the first 30 years of my life, the goal was to make the PGA Tour through testing out Dr. K Anders Ericsson's theory that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become an over-achiever in any specific field. For me, golf seemed like the perfect vehicle for this test. It was something I had never done before, it was a mix of physical and mental, it was objective and easy to track one's progress as there is a world-wide handicapping system already established, and it was outside. Everything about it felt right, so after 9 months of planning and 5 years of saving up money I started off on the journey. (On a side note, I originally saved money to put myself through graduate school, but after enrolling and going to one class I realized that path was not right for me.)

I spoke with Dr. Ericsson a handful of times in the beginning to figure out how to go about the daily routine. Originally, I figured I could practice for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week and get to the 10,000 hour mark in about 3.5 years, but after speaking with him about concentration levels and learning absorption, I realized that this was quickly becoming a much longer project. The important thing was not just to do it, but to do it right. If I was going to go all in and dedicate 6-plus years of my life to this I didn't want to have any regrets. A typical day, then, would be between 4-6 hours of time literally standing over a ball engaged in practice along with a handful of extra curricular activities such as working out, watching film, reading about swing theory, meditation, etc. The days would be long, yet the hours counted towards the 10,000 would be few.

Plan in place, I set out on a cold-as-hell April day in Portland, OR. It was rainy, below 40 degrees with 20 mph winds and I had on jeans, running shoes and a bright yellow hooded rain jacket like you would see on a New England fishing pier. I went to a municipal golf course and didn't know what the policy was on using the putting green, so introduced myself to the man at the pro shop and told him about my goal as a golfer. He asked if I was scratch player and I said I didn't know what that means and that I hadn't played golf before. There were a few laughs and some jokes tossed around then he let me know that municipal courses are owned by the city and anyone could practice there. This was good news as the first chapter of The Dan Plan was all about putting and if I could do that for free then that was a huge plus as it was going to be a stretch, to say the least, looking at my finances.

I went to work putting away. From one foot away from the hole. For four hours. Every ten putts I wrote down a number in a small Rhodia notebook. The plan was pretty simple, I would start from one foot away from the hole and stay there until I reached a specific proficiency, then move out to 3 feet and do the same, then 5, 10, 20, 40 and so on until I had reached a PGA Tour average from all of those distances. I thought it would take a month or so to go through all of the putting distances, but it ended up being harder than I had imagined. It only took one day to get to the 1-footers to a 100 percent level, but 3-footers were a different story. On the first day I attempted 3-foot putts, my percentage made for the day was %63.73. After a month of doing just this distance, the percentage went up to %84.8 and then after another few weeks I was finally consistently in the %90+ range where I needed to be. It was the same for 5-footers, although it took more time and the percentage plateaued around %80, which is right at the level I wanted to be.

This pattern continued until I finally got a second club, which was a pitching wedge I started using on August 29, 2010. I couldn't get enough! After rolling the ball for 4.5 months I finally could actually hit the thing off the ground. It was a good day. As it was for putting, so it would be for chipping. I started on the fringe just a few feet off the putting green and learned how to knock the ball onto the green, got to my goal from this distance and then moved back some, slowly working away from the green. By February 2011 I was starting to "play" some golf from about 30 yards off of putting greens and the goal was to make everything in 3 strokes: hit it on and then two-putt. Worked at it daily and continued the push away from the hole. In March I had my first full swing lesson and then started practicing/playing from about 100 yards out. The entire time, I was still spending the majority of my days working on all of the distances I had already worked through. The new skill, or distance, I was trying to learn would be what I worked on for the first hour of the day and the rest of the day was reinforcing previously learned parts of the game.

I added clubs slowly through the year and on November 14, 2011, I hit a driver for the first time in my life. It was a great feeling to have made it to a driver and to celebrate I went down to Bandon Dunes, Oregon to play 36 holes with Freakonomics author Steven Levitt. He's a good player and we had a blast out there on the Oregon coast. I shot a 94 on the first course and a 98 on the second, with the driver in the bag for the first time and actually still only having 8 clubs: driver, 3-hybrid, 6-iron, 8-iron, pitching wedge, 52-degree wedge, 56-degree wedge and putter. There were only eight clubs because I worked through these with the idea of filling in the rest of the clubs later on as there is not much difference between an 8-iron and a 9-iron or 7-iron.

On December 22, 2011, I finally got a full set of 14 clubs. Since then, I have been learning what distances each club goes while focusing on my mechanics and always working hard on the short game as that's the difference between a decent golfer and a great golfer, or so I've come to realize recently. I've fallen for the sport completely and it has basically consumed my life. If I'm not on the course, I'm thinking about the last round I had or whatever swing thought I am trying to build into my swing.

Right now I am approaching the 2,500-hour mark and it has been about 22 months since hitting that first 1-foot putt. Doing that math, that means I have about 5 years remaining. The project grows as it ages, and not everything goes as planned, but I'm in it for the long haul and will be writing about my experiences while trying to collect decent data along the way.

For more information about the project, please go to

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