Putting In The Hours
An Interview with Dan McLaughlin
Academics. Arts. Athletics. Can we break the shackles of our own identity? Can we develop talents outside of those we innately develop as a child? These are the questions Dan….. asked. Going through school known for his mathematic ability, Dan changed direction in University to pursue the arts. After a successful career as a commercial photographer, he then decided to turn his attention to golf - a sport he had no experience in. Can 10,000 hours of practice in a game you’ve never played really make you a professional?
You probably get asked this a fair bit, but I have to know – why did you decide to do the experiment in the first place?
Growing up, my parents and family placed us into a niche. People used to define our house as the ‘math’ people. We’re not ‘artistic’ people. We’re really good at math but we can’t draw. I was always kind of sceptical about it. I didn’t really understand why you have to be a certain type of person. Later on, I actually switched from math degree in university and ended up going to photography and the arts.
That’s a brave step!
It was, but the more I did photography and the like, the more I became an art person. I realised that you are whatever you want to be. We’re not a type of person. We’re not architects or nurses or librarians or whatever. You can take any sort of path and rip up the rules. You can decide to be something, and with work, you can then become that thing. I wanted to explore that more and see how far I could go. If I completely changed direction at 30 what would happen? I had never done anything athletic and for the experiment to be accurate it had to be something I had zero experience in. Golf was a great fit. I wanted to see how far we could go if we are willing to completely change direction and dedicate ourselves to something brand new.
“I wanted to see how far we could go if we are willing to completely change direction and dedicate ourselves to something brand new.”
That’s really interesting. As people had labelled you before getting to know you, do you think you went down the photography route purely to prove that “there’s a lot more to me”, or did you actually start growing a love for the arts and photography?
It was a little bit of both. I wanted to prove to myself that I could be an art person. And then, I’m not going to lie, there was a girl involved! I wanted to see and learn about her world and I got interested in it. I just became more and more fascinated and I just ended up falling for it. So I pursued the art world with all that I had. I loved it for a long time.
I found it fascinating that I could shift gears even though I was always told that we weren’t art people.
So if you really enjoy the Arts and you’d proven people wrong, why then take another leap and go into sports? Was there a moment or an event that made you think at 30, ‘I want to change’?
There wasn’t a major moment. I never became great at photography but more importantly I lost my passion for it, and lost my passion in trying to improve. It ended up becoming just a job. I got paid pretty well doing commercial photography but the passion was gone and I wasn’t challenging myself. I wanted to shift gears and do something that would be more challenging. That’s when I started thinking about this pursuit.
Then, I visited my brother in Omaha, Nebraska right around when I turned 30 and we went out and played nine holes of golf. That was the first time I had ever played nine holes of golf. It was so challenging. Afterwards, we were talking about human potential and how far you could go if you just completely dedicate yourself [like we were saying earlier]. That kind of idea just kind of stuck with me for a few months and I couldn’t get golf out of my mind. Eventually, after a lot of planning, that’s when I basically decided to drop it all and make this my new challenge.
Fascinating! Do you think that have you played another game with your brother that day, like tennis, you may have ended up not doing golf and replacing it with another sport or activity, or was there a particular draw to golf?
I was drawn to it. I had never done it, bar that round with my brother, and it just seemed like something I could really get into. I thought about other sports – athletics, tennis, cricket etc. but then I always came back to golf because there was no size archetype and there’s no age limit really. It just seemed like that had the most potential for success.
I firmly believe you can become professional at anything but then I realise you’ll have more obstacles in becoming a pro NBA player if you are small and old. You have to have an element of realism.
So you decided to leave your job and progress the ‘Dan Plan’ (bidding to become a professional golfer with 10,000 hours worth of practice). I guess the first question is logistically and financially how does it work? Did you have to save a lot of money to be able to do it or did you have to go out and find sponsors, or do you still have a job?
I already had saved that money because I was planning to go to graduate school. I was thinking about it for a long time. I actually enrolled in a Masters Business program but I took one class –and it just didn’t seem right for me.
But the five years before that, I’d been saving money because I wanted to go to 3 or 4 years of graduate school and not to go to work. So I basically used that money and I thought, “Well, I could spend all this money and go to graduate school and the end result is I have to get a job and I’m probably broke. Or I can use those funds and do three or four years in any kind of modern apprenticeship and the end result is I’m broke and have to get a job.” I just thought of it as an opportunity to explore some alternative options.
Great! And so moving on to golf, how did you begin? Did you begin driving and work your way to the green or do you start putting and work your way back?
That’s funny. For the first five months I only putted.
I started a foot away from the hole and moved slowly back!
Yeah. It was like one foot putt and then three foot putts and five foot and then 10 and then 20 and eventually I’m hitting lags and hitting all kinds of puts. About four and a half months into it, I got a pitching wedge and started chipping from the fringe.
I sort of worked my way from the green. Then, I got an 8 iron and started playing shots from 100 yards and also doing half swings. Then, I got a 6 iron and so on.
It took a year and a half to get a driver and then another 20 months or so I got a full set of clubs and played four rounds for the first time.
No, way! You must have been desperate to play four rounds of golf or to get straight into driving? So you’re doing a week or two weeks of five-foot puts. You must have had a lot of patience?
Yeah. For me, that was golf. I had my tasks and my goals. Because I never played before so going out and trying to make 90% of my three-footers, that was golf to me.
Trying to get up and down on the fringe, that was golf. There was no chance in hell I could do it now. Just because I know the game and I love the game and I couldn’t stop now and just putt for five months. But because I was kind of getting slowly immersed in the game, I think that made that method possible.
I presume that you’ve worked closely with a coach? And was that the main expense, paying a coach and working with him or her on a daily basis?
Yeah. I worked with a coach about every two weeks. At first it was one week and then it slowly went to two weeks just because – I would work him and he would tell me basically everything I need to work and then I go to work on it for a week and then go back and see him. So there was no point in seeing him more than that.
But yeah it was one of the biggest expenses. Golf definitely isn’t cheap. Course fees, equipment – you name it, it costs!
Were you helped by the fact that you had literally never played the game so you didn’t have any bad habits? I play golf and my grip is all wrong. So if I went to a coach he would try to teach me how to hold it correctly and it would just feel so alien. I wouldn’t be able to do it. Do you think it was an advantage starting from scratch or do you think that someone like me has an advantage? As even though I’ve got a few bad habits, I was potentially ahead of you in the sense that I’ve played a few courses a few times and can hack my way around?
I think it’s easier to learn something new for the first time than it is to change something that has already been embedded in you.
Having said that after I learned how to swing, grip it, and all these things, I ended up getting into a little plateau and so started working with a new swing. So I changed my swing and changed my grip. I practiced a lot and embedded some good habits and tried to remove some bad habits.
I go through the same struggles like everybody now, I guess. Even like Tiger or Rory, everybody makes swing changes. It is part of growing. Whether you learn it later in life or in your childhood it’s just all about being open-minded and being able to stick at it and adapt.
You’re around 2/3 your way through the 10,000 hours at the moment?
Right now maybe 5700 – 5800 hours in.
Right. And are you where you think you should be?
Pretty much. There are different aspects to the game. If you just look at the overall picture, I’d like to be a little bit farther along. But if you look at my short game and different parts of my game, I think I’m doing really well. I’m further than where I thought I would be.
I think the main struggle with me right now is the driver and tee shots. That’s the difference between me being a three (handicap) as I am right now and a scratch.
You’re playing off of three? That’s crazy! So in about 6,000 hours you’ve gone from not having a handicap to playing off a three? Wow.
Yeah. The funny thing is on the halfway mark, on the 5,000 hour day, I shot under par for the first time ever. That was pretty cool!
Bet that was an unreal feeling!
Just a bit!
Motivation-wise is it hard to keep going? Especially if you’ve hit a plateau as you did a while back? Have you been close to quitting during this process and thinking, “Well, I’m not going to make a professional golfer. This is pointless.”
I always have the motivation. The one thing that’s kind of a constant struggle is finances. I’m always trying to look for ways to raise money – not because I want to get rich or something but just because I want to take more lessons, see specialists and I want to enter more tournaments.
It’s really frustrating in a lot of ways because it just boils down to money. I didn’t really realise how expensive this sport was. Not just playing it but the gear and seeing people and coaches and all that. That has been a struggle. It hasn’t made me want to quit or anything but it’s just a little unfortunate.
So do you have to – or do you think you will have to – juggle a job and the golf?
Right now I’m just going to go as long as I can. That’s the only thing that makes sense. Eventually, I’m going to have to get some kind of part-time two-day week job so then I can support myself while still pursuing the golf. I’m not really sure what’s going to happen but I’m just going to keep going as long as I can and then just face those obstacles when the time is right.
Awesome. And the motivation that we spoke about there, what is it that actually motivates you? Is it proving the experiment correct or is it potentially the money and success that golf can bring?
I think it’s a lot of about proving what I originally set out to prove. Plus, for me personally, I really don’t like losing. When I play in a match and I lose one down or something, then that really motivates me the next week to get a little bit better. I’m just a pretty competitive person I think.
Cool! If you have to pick one tip or a couple of tips for an aspiring golfer, what do you think they would be?
What level of golfer?
Someone who plays off of 20 or so? And wants to get into the low teens.
It’s pretty simple really. When you’re out there playing, just hit the ball. A lot of times people are so concerned with all different mechanics and swing thoughts that they end up burying themselves. You get so into the analysis that you forget your job is to hit the ball with a square face. Just focus on hitting the ball and playing the game. Don’t think too much as it’ll ruin you.
“Don’t think too much as it’ll ruin you.”
Also, don’t mix practice and playing. There’s a time to focus on the swing and focus on all the mechanical and technical aspects. And then, there’s just a time to play the game. Just enjoy it and play it.
Cool. That’s sound advice. What golfer do you follow? Are you a Tiger man or a Rory man or neither?
Kuchar, I like following him. I like Dufner. I like different golfers for different parts of the game. I model my short game after Zach Johnson. I like the ones who have a calmness about them.
Same. Did you watch the Ryder Cup this year?
What was the American reaction like? After it finished, there seemed a lot of tension between Watson and Mickelson? I’ve always wondered how big it is in America as it is huge here.
Yeah it’s big. I would say it’s on level with the Majors, if not bigger. People who are interested in golf are definitely interested in the Ryder Cup. I don’t really know what Watson and Mickelson were arguing about but it certainly didn’t help our cause. One thing that is clear from the Ryder Cup is Patrick Reed is emerging as an incredibly interesting golfer to follow.
Yes. Wasn’t he rested for one of the sessions? I think it was the session after he and Spieth battered the two Europeans in the morning. Like you say he looks a top player.
He’s 23 years old. In college, he always played 36 holes. I don’t know why he was rested, seems pretty mad to me. Maybe that’s part of the reason Mickelson was so annoyed at Watson – who was being played, who was getting rested.
Yeah sounds like it. So going back to your story. First of all, do you think that you will succeed and prove the experiment right in the sense that you think you will eventually become a professional golfer? What happens if you fail?
I don’t think about failure. It’s just not something you focus on or think about. For me, I just assume I’m going to succeed. I’m on the right path and I really do feel that I’ll get there.
People have always asked about the future and all that. For me, I just think about today and this week. I don’t look years down the road and think what would happen or what could happen or won’t happen. I think as long as you’re pushing yourself and you’re constantly making chances and opportunities for yourself, then you’re going to create your own future.
“I think as long as you’re pushing yourself and you’re constantly making chances and opportunities for yourself, then you’re going to create your own future.’
That’s sound advice. Do you think that you’ll stick with golf or do you think that you’ll have another sort of shift and think maybe at 40, “Okay, this is fine but I’m going to do something else now”?
Maybe after I win a PGA event, at that point… I might think about what I’ve done and where I’ve come from. If I still enjoy what I do, then I’ll just keep doing it, but if I don’t I won’t. I think you have to be honest with yourself and make sure that you’re enjoying your pursuits in life. Because we do change. You just have to be open and aware and be honest with yourself. If you’re not enjoying yourself then question that and ask yourself what you can do to make it more enjoyable.
That’s really interesting. It sounds like you were fairly successful with photography. You could become successful in golf. But at the end of the day if you’re enjoying what it is that you’re doing, then you’ll just quit and do something else that you will enjoy – which I think not many people would do.
Yeah. And you have to take the long view because we all have bad days and bad weeks. Just because you have your boss yelling at you and you don’t have a good day, doesn’t mean you should go and quit your job. If you are unhappy on a pretty regular basis and you want to do something else, why not do it? That’s always my argument. People argue that it’s about the security and having a job and being able to take care of all these things. At the end of the day, you can’t just cruise through life unhappy until you’re 65 and expect to go find yourself. I think you have to be open and do it now.
We share a lot of inspiring stories, and many readers come back and say, “Wow, that’s so inspiring. This is amazing.” And then you get some who fairly say, ‘But, I can’t just quit my job, I haven’t got the money’ or ‘I’ve got responsibilities or I’ve got children,’ or whatever it maybe. Do you think that there are solutions to those problems that these people are describing? In other words, if you do want to make a change, if you want it enough, then can you make that happen?
Exactly. You definitely can make it happen. I think it’s a lot harder to make a big change if you have a lot of responsibilities. I mean, if you have children or a mortgage on a house, these could be things that are keeping you at your current job. It doesn’t mean that you have to quit your job and take a drastic life change. Maybe you can look to do your hobbies and find things that interest you outside of work. Too many people get up, go to work and accept their fate. Yes, not everyone can quit their job but everyone can pack their lives with more fun. It could be in any form – meeting friends, hobbies, you name it – you can do it. Everyone has the capacity to enjoy their life but it comes down to you at the end of the day.
One final question. Are there any ways that you think readers of our site can get involved with what it is that you’re doing and the Dan Plan?
Brilliant. Good luck for today’s round!
No worries, it has been a lot of fun. I think I am going to shoot low today, I can feel it!