The Dan Plan failed

Sunday, August 27th, 2017

I first heard about the Dan Plan — in which Dan McLaughlin decided to put aside everything else to put in 10,000 hours of deliberate golf practice and become an adult prodigy — six years ago. It didn’t work out:

Enlisting a coach, McLaughlin collected data on his performance and sent it to Ericsson, who plotted his improvement. McLaughlin built his game from the hole out. For months, all he did was putt. Gradually, he moved farther from the flag, adding clubs. Eighteen months in, he played his first full round. At peak practice, he was putting in four hours on the practice green and driving range and playing 18 holes daily. He was stingy in tallying hours toward the 10,000 mark, only counting concentrated practice.

Barely over halfway through, he’d pared his handicap to an all-time low of 2.6 — a mark achieved by fewer than 6 percent of golfers.


As he progressed, McLaughlin found that many of our instincts turn out to be self-defeating. “People’s intuitions about practice are nowhere near optimal,” says Robert Bjork, a professor in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research has demonstrated the effectiveness of introducing “deliberate difficulty” into practice — for instance, constant variety, “interleaving” between different skills and “spacing” study to force students to retrieve, and embed, new knowledge between sessions.

“You want to increase arousal so [the brain encodes] information at a deeper level,’” says Mark Guadagnoli, a professor of neuroscience and neurology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Medicine. “It’s [like] using a laser to engrave something versus a ballpoint pen.”

With advice from Bjork, Ericsson, Guadagnoli, and others, McLaughlin incorporated these principles. But only after he’d burned months drilling single skills like putting — intuitively the best way to practice, but actually the least effective.


According to the PGA, for every one of the 245 spots on the PGA Tour, there are 326,000 active golfers worldwide. Bjork got a look at McLaughlin’s game in 2014. “I could watch him and think it was remarkable for someone who hadn’t played before,” Bjork recounts. “Or, I could look at him … and say the whole idea of [making] the pro tour was unrealistic.”

McLaughlin stuck to his task for years, but 6,003 hours in, his back would no longer comply. “I couldn’t swing a club for six months,” he says. Today, he’s fine — as long as he doesn’t try to play golf every day. And the Dan Plan is a digital ruin, trailing off mid-stream amid the plaintive questions of diehard fans: “What’s the latest Dan?”


  1. Redan says:

    “Left his fight in the gym.”

  2. Alrenous says:

    So much for golf not demanding any genetic gifts.

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