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From The Atlantic:
Dan McLaughlin got famous for valuing hard practice over talent. Then he didn’t reach his goal.
… The conversation that planted the seed for the Dan Plan took place in June 2009, as McLaughlin hacked around a golf course in Omaha, Nebraska, with his brother. “We [talked] about the idea of quitting everything to pursue something single-mindedly and whole-heartedly,” McLaughlin recounts. “Did you need talent or was it all about hard work?”
“The idea of talent is [like] living in a society of kings and princes. If you don’t limit yourself by this idea … it’s more like a democracy.”
Such questions were in the air. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the book that popularized the idea that mastery in a given field takes at least 10,000 hours of practice, had just come out, as had Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated and Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, both of which emphasized the role of dedicated practice (and discounted natural-born talent) in excellence.
McLaughlin hadn’t read these tomes. But friends pressed them on him, and the Dan Plan took shape. It would test how far practice could take you; and, taking a cue from Outliers, its time horizon would be 10,000 hours of practice. Golf fit neatly with this empirical goal. There were no barriers to entry—top golfers come in all shapes and sizes, no genetic assists for certain body types.
My impression is that while most top golfers used to be pretty average in size, they have gotten bigger over the years. At the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills, for example, it seemed like about 2 out of 3 contestants were in the range of at least 6 feet and approaching 200 pounds, rather than, say, 5-10 and 170. This is probably due to more worldwide recruitment of talent and better training. It’s easier to control your body when you are small, as gymnasts would suggest, but top golfers post-Ben Hogan are so highly trained due to incessant practice, that being a wiry little gymnast-type like Hogan isn’t as useful anymore.
Fishing for advice once the project was underway, McLaughlin emailed K. Anders Ericsson, the Florida State University psychologist whose study of violin and piano virtuosi Gladwell cited in Outliers. The two struck up a correspondence.
Ericsson was impressed. In particular, he was taken with McLaughlin’s commitment to systematic, “deliberate” practice…
Playing a round of golf over 4 or 5 hours is a fun but highly inefficient way to practice golf skills. McLaughlin spent most of his hours instead at the driving range or putting green. (Most casual golfers get few chances to practice sand shots from greenside bunkers because you have to swing hard while trying to undercut the ball to make it softly pop up in the air. If you instead accidentally blade the ball, the ball can come rocketing out and put somebody’s eye out in a crowded practice area. That’s why the most obvious difference between elite and casual golfers is in blasting from sand traps.)
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.
Actually, I’d bet that’s better than the 94th percentile because most 10-or-15 rounds per year casual golfers don’t have an official handicap. A 2.6 handicap means you should frequently shoot in the 70s on an average difficulty course, with a chance of shooting in the 60s if you get very lucky.
Tour pros, who play much longer, harder courses, would have handicaps in the negative five to negative ten range.
So, Dan McLaughlin got to be at least two standard deviations above average through intense practice. That’s really good.
On the other hand, he was still several standard deviations below tour pro quality and was maxing out on his potential. His handicap stopped declining and started to float up a little.
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.
I don’t recall anybody making the men’s tour after taking up golf after their teenage years since Larry Nelson and Calvin Peete, who started golf in their early 20s and became stars in the 1980s.
At a more elite level, here’s a story about wiry Canadian golfer named Jamie Sadlowski who makes a half million per year doing long driving exhibitions. (His all time best in a long driving competition is 445 yards.) In his late 20s, he’s now working on becoming a tour pro, but he still has a long way to go to be competitive.
Golf is just a very complicated game and it’s hard to master all the skills involved, especially after your teenage years.