It was no surprise to hear that my playing partner for the day had arrived at the course early and was spending his time practicing. For my playing partner was none other than Dan McLaughlin, and Dan has a plan to spend 10,000 hours on his golf game in an attempt to become one of the world’s best golfers.
The 10,000 hours theory was originally proposed in 1993 by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, a world leading researcher in the field of expertise.
Anders’ theory was later made popular through Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’ and Geoff Colvin’s ‘Talent is Overrated’, and deals with the premise that talent has very little to do with success. The research of Anders led him to propose that roughly 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is what it takes to excel in a particular field.
The project was intricately planned for nine months. Dan quit his job as a professional photographer in 2010, delved into his five years of savings and headed to his local golf course where in a severe rain storm, Dan spent four hours practising his putting from no more than one foot away.
Dan built this swing from scratch, after nearly five months of exclusive putting, he progressed to chips shots and then slowly increased the distance from the from the hole, moving to a full swing almost a year into the project.
“I worked my way up through the bag and I didn’t hit a driver for 18 months.”
When I asked him why, Dan replied “Because I didn’t own one!”
Dan clocked through the halfway mark of the challenge a few months before arriving in Australia. At the time of our meeting, he has roughly 4600 hours left, had recently broken par for the first time and was hovering between a handicap of three and four.
“Deliberate practice for me is when I’m highly focused working with a golf club and a golf ball. So I could be at a course for eight hours a day but only get in four hours of training.” Dan said.
When you consider where his game was at before he began the challenge you could argue it’s already been somewhat of a success.
At the age of 30, Dan had never played a full round of golf before he began the game. In fact he had only ever swung the golf club on a handful of occasions.
“My brother and I discussed what activity you could apply the theory to and golf kept on coming back to me. There is no age limit, particular body shape needed and it has an international handicap system which can track your progress.” Dan said.
“My parents thought I was going through a ‘phase’, which would soon pass. I think they realise now that I’m serious about the whole thing.”
At 5’9”, Dan is by all appearances just an average bloke. He has an unassuming appearance that is complemented with a calm, assured demeanour and a great sense of humour. Certainly not someone I would have expected to attempt such a momentous challenge and I wonder if this subtle projection plays a part in the skepticism towards his lofty goal – to be competitive in the professional golf ranks.
Following his progress through his website, it was obvious that Dan’s swing was a mechanical, rigid one. Robotic, full of purpose, like someone had copied a golf swing straight from a golf instruction manual, this wasn’t far away from the truth.
While an awkward golf swing doesn’t necessarily preclude someone from playing great golf (think Jim Furyk) I wondered if the mechanical nature of it was evidence that Dan was missing some natural talent that may disprove the theory.
Impressively, Dan’s swing has changed.
It’s still mechanically very sound with great tempo and balance but the rigidity has gone. In its place is a fluid golf swing with a big shoulder turn that produces consistently great contact with the golf ball – he looks like he’s been playing golf his whole life.
“I can assure you I don’t always make great contact. Like everyone else I have good and bad days but I’m having fewer bad days than when I first started playing”.
Dan spends almost every day at the golf course practising his golf game and I wondered what he says to people who ask what he does for a living.
“I now just say I’m a golfer. I wrote that down as my profession as I entered Australia and the woman at customs asked if she knew me. Ummm, maybe!”
The attention that the project has garnered from the media and golfers around the world appears to have taken Dan by surprise. He has been mentioned in numerous of the world’s leading media outlets including Time magazine and the primary reason for his Australian adventure was to appear on SBS’ Insight program which discussed the 10,000 hours theory with other elite athletes and coaches.
Just as he did on the show, Dan has encountered a large amount of skepticism which usually leads to one question.
“Everyone asks me what I’m going to do after I reach the 10,000 hour mark, but to me this is how I’m living right now. I barely know what I’m doing tomorrow let alone in three year’s time.”
Aside from completing the 10,000 hours of deliberate golf practice, Dan does hope to complete the journey by teeing it up in a professional golf tournament.
“I’d like to play in a PGA Tour event. It’d be great to get a sponsor’s exemption and not just compete, but make the cut.”
This isn’t a project to prove that the 10,000 hours theory works, it’s a project to see if it works when applied to golf by a determined, unassuming, good bloke. It’s a fascinating experiment and after meeting Dan, I’m even more excited to see how this pans out.
Dan clearly doesn’t fear failure. As he said, this is just a way of living. We all have our goals in life and right now, this is Dan’s. Ideally, he’ll make the cut in a PGA Tour event as his countdown to 10,000 hours of practice finishes but if not, Dan will have accomplished a journey few of us will ever have the determination to attempt, let alone complete.