10,000 hours later: the PGA Tour?

Last spring, I jokingly (okay, maybe half-jokingly) wrote about my quest to make the Champions Tour, the professional golf tour for people over the age of 50.  In that post, I made reference to the ideas of Anders Ericsson, an old friend whom Dubner and I wrote about in our New York Times column back in 2006, and whose ideas later became the centerpiece of a number of popular books.  Anders is the one who thinks that talent is unimportant. Oversimplifying a bit, he argues that with 10,000 hours of the right kind of deliberate practice, more or less anyone can become more or less world-class at anything. I’ve spent 5,000 hours practicing golf, so if I could just find the time for 5,000 more, I should be able to compete with the pros. Or at least that is what the theory says.  My scorecards seem to be telling a different story!

It turns out I’ve got a kindred spirit in this pursuit, only this guy is dead serious.  A few years back, twenty-something Dan McLaughlin decided he wanted to play on the PGA tour.  Never mind that he had only played golf once or twice in his life and had done quite poorly those times.  He knew the 10,000 hour argument, and he thought it would be fun to give it a test.  So he quit his job, found a golf coach, and has devoted his life to golf ever since.  So far he is 2,500 hours into his 10,000 hour quest, which he chronicles at thedanplan.com.

Bandon Dunes golf course. (Photo: Ryan Healy)

I happened to find myself at Bandon Dunes, the golfers’ haven on the Oregon coast, a while back.  I met Dan there, and we had the chance to play 36 holes together.  We had a great time, and it was fascinating to get to know him and hear about his approach.

The golf pro who has been guiding him had a very unusual plan, to say the least.  For the first six month of Dan’s golfing life, he was only allowed to putt.  We are literally talking about Dan standing on a putting green for 6-8 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, hitting one putt after another.  That is nearly 1,000 hours of putting before he ever touched another club.  Then he was given a wedge.  He used just the wedge and the putter for another few months, before he got an 8 iron.  It wasn’t until a year and a half into his golfing life – 2,000 hours of practice – that he hit a driver for the first time.

I understand the basic logic of starting close to the hole (most shots in golf, after all, do occur close to the hole), but to my economist’s mind, this sounds like a very bad strategy for at least two reasons.  First, one of the most basic tenets of economics is what we call diminishing marginal returns.  The first little bit of something yields big returns; the more you do of something, the less valuable it is.  For example, the first ice cream cone is delicious.  The fourth is nauseating.  The same must be true of putting.  The first half hour is fun and engaging.  By the eighth straight hour, it must be mind-numbing.  I just can’t imagine a person could focus that single-mindedly on putting, not just one day, but for months and months on end.  Second, my own experience suggests that there are spillovers across different aspects of golf.  Things you feel when chipping help inform the full swing.  Sometimes I can feel what I should be doing with a driver, and that helps me with my irons.  Sometimes it is the opposite.  To be putting and chipping for months without any idea what a full swing is – that just seems wrong to me.

So is the strategy working?  Dan is 2,500 hours into his experiment, he is still really excited about golf, so that is a victory in and of itself.  He is an 11 handicap, which means he is about 15-16 strokes per round away from being good enough for the PGA tour.  That means he has to shave off about one stroke for every 500 hours of practice from here on out.  I suspect he can keep that rate of improvement for the next few thousand hours, but it will be a tough haul after that.

Whatever the outcome, I’ll be rooting for him.  Partly because he is a nice guy, and partly because he promised me free tickets to the 2016 U.S. Open, but only if he qualifies. 


Chris S

"Drive for show, putt for dough."

Sounds like the pro is following a well established plan. I can see your marginal returns argument, but it may be that the marginal returns on putting only decline after several thousand hours, while the marginal returns on driving come in quite quickly. Given that the the ball interacts with a lot more *stuff* while putting, I think I can see how putting has a much longer learning curve than driving.

Care to research a quote and see how long people have been saying this?

Nick

Where is the handicap vs hours graph? This seems like a cruel joke to set something up so well and then to not answer it. Please?

Trevor

I am right behind him , I will join him on tour
9900 hours to go :O)

Andrew

As a +3 golfer myself, I find this plan very interesting. When it comes to score in golf, the short game and putting is what separates the winners and losers. The full swing (irons and driver) are obviously important, but even a perfect swing doesn't get the ball in the hole without a solid short game.

Personally, if I were to instruct him on a similar plan, I would have him practice all aspects of the short game at the same time, instead of only putting, and then move on to the full swing.

Hopefully he continues on this plan so we can see some results!

Joe

World class golf is a different animal than regular fun golf. I played college golf and some of the very best players in practice were no where near the best in tournaments when nerves are present. Something magical happens in the minds of the best players that allows them to perform as well (or better) under pressure. That is the real test, which happens after thousands of hours of practice. That being said, it is still a noble and grand pursuit that I am glad I took.

Val B

I've been following Dan for awhile. I wish he would have taken a more traditional approach to learning the game. I told him that if he succeeds, it's not the number of hours that will be the headline, it's the method. I think he has lowered his odds of success with this method because learning to "play" the game takes experience and he has shortened the amount of time he will have for the playing experience itself. I really hope he succeeds or at least feels the journey was worthwhile, but I would love to see someone try this with a more traditional learning method.

rehajm

I've taken instruction from one of the best teachers in the world and listeningto him I would have to concur- method is definitely more important than time served. That said, perhaps Dan's method will prove true- only time will tell. Good luck, Dan!

Steve Nations

I'm rooting for him too, but I think the whole premise is wrong. When it comes to sports and athletics, I think that natural talent plays a big part in the success equation, as does the psychological aspect. I think the same is true for music. I don't have a musical bone in my brain, and beyond the fact that I couldn't possibly practice the violin for 10,000 hours, even if I did I wouldn't be as good as a natural musician who only practiced for 1,000 hours.

Natural talent provides a head start to some, and then it's a matter of practice.

Steve

That's the thing, everyone says that sports and music (at least) are about talent--that's why they have prodigies who couldn't possibly have spent 10,000 practicing.

But the thing is, when you go and study prodigies like Tiger Woods and Mozart you hear about how Wood's dad sat him in a high chair and hit thousands of golf balls while he watched and had him learning to putt at 2 and 3. The argument, of course, isn't that anyone could have become Tiger if they had his dad, it's that Tiger learned to do everything so young because he practice more when he was young not because he was born with the "natural talent."

Steve Nations

I suspect that for every Tiger Woods there are a hundred Todd Marinovich's.

Ivan

Speaking of economics, how does Dan generate income during his 10,000 plan, since he is not working, nor is he good enough yet to earn income from golf?

Adam

His handicap at this point is probably not very relevant based on the way that he is training. It would be much more interesting to know how good his short game and putt average are compared to a pro or a ranked amateur.

Eric M. Jones.

I think you could spend 10,000 hours with the wrong teacher and never play pro-anything.

JOHN B

That is what makes golf interesting. If you practice the wrong swing, your body is trained to swing wrongly and more practice makes it worse.

Actually, that seems to work with stock investing, economics and, especially, government too. Keep doing it wrong over and over and wonder why it doesn't work. And why you can't stop.

james

nice piece - I'm a health economist who golfs ( golves?) . Club member for ten years, play n practice av 15 hours/week (!). so 15*50*10= 7,500 hours. Should be getting there.... but evidence mixed at best. But were those hours consumption or investment? Certainly wd not have kept going if I did'nt enjoy it. Is Dubner all investment, no consumption? sounds like it!

Mike

So does a passion/love of the game matter? I know those uptight economist types probably say love is not real etc...its something to tell the tourists.
You gotta love the game to spend this much time with it right???? Doesn't that account for something? Seems so in many of the 10,000 hr examples, those seemed to meet 10,000hrs through pure passion or motivation other than possible riches.

Does Dan love golf or love the thought of riches at the end of this 10,000 hr rainbow? (Am I being too harsh on Dan?)

crquack

Oh, boy!

First of all, the 10,000 hours/no talent mantra has been discredited. Talent matters! There are some rather good studies showing it.

Second, it is not difficult to get to 11 handicap from say 20. It is a whole different beast getting from 11 to 3 and even more difficult to get from 3 to scratch. Your argument implies some sort of linear relationship which it is not.

Third, just because you are a scratch player does not mean that you will get to play on the PGA tour. It is certainly a pre-requisite but not an ticket to entry. You have to go through a gruelling competition to be selected. It is certain you that you will be competing against other scratch players who work just as hard as you but many of these will actually have a talent for the game.

Good luck to Dan, but I would not bet on him.

Nick Chertock

Great to see that you and Dan connected. I tend to agree with you about the decreasing marginal returns of practicing just putting, but consider this:

1. He avoided the traditional beginner curse of wanting to hit driver for his whole range session.
2. He hopefully became deadly from 3 to 5 feet which is a big difference maker in scoring
3. If he had the discipline to just putt for all that time, it will only get more fun and interesting as he gets to play through the entire set.

But if it was me I would have spent a year playing executive courses where he would still get a lot of practice with the short game but still played full shots and learned scoring by doing. I personally like to play a short course with three balls by myself to get the most bang for my practice buck.

Research from motor learning experts has shown that random practice like that yields much better results compared to block practice for all but the most raw beginners.

Either way Dan is inspiring to those of us trying to improve our own handicaps. Even those of us who have already logged 10,000 hours and still can't break 80!

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Michael Gallagher

The one big problem I see with this approach is that it doesn't take the process of motor learning into account. When we learn a physical task, we don't learn best by doing one thing a whole bunch of times, then another thing a whole bunch of times, then another, etc. This is called blocked practice. We learn and perfect a physical task best through random practice: learn the basics of putting, practice it, then go do something else for a while (like driving, or chipping...or better yet, both). When you come back to putting later, you will do better at putting because your brain has had time to internalize all the different scenarios and outcomes it experienced earlier. Motor learning and the effects of blocked vs random practice are very well documented in medical and physical rehabilitation literature.
Regardless of all of that, best of luck to Dan! Kudos to him for sticking with it.

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KevinB

When I first read your headline, I thought that it was ironic commentary about slow play on the PGA Tour, as in it takes 10,000 hours for some pros to play a shot!

I don't know if I wholly support the plan, but even the great Ben Hogan - reportedly the best ball striker on the tour for years - emphasized the importance of putting. He said (approx.) "A stroke lost in the fairway can be regained, but a stroke lost on the green is gone forever". (He also supposedly said "Golf is a great game ruined by putting".) And, as anyone who has ever stood over a downhill four footer that breaks away from him knows, if you need the putt for a triple-bogey, it's a cinch; if you need it to win that $5 Nassau, the hole looks like a pinhead.

In my youth, I concentrated on striking the ball. I would stripe a drive down the middle, cover the flag with a 7-iron, and lose the hole to a friend who would hit a wimpy slice, leave a 5-iron 20 yards short of the hole, and then knock a wedge close and make the putt while I 3-putted from the back of the green. Then I took a putting course in my late 30's, and dropped my handicap by four strokes. I learned a lot about putting, but the most important thing I learned was to have a routine, and to TRUST it. If you let your conscious mind enter into the fray, gremlins pop up in your stroke everywhere; if you trust what you've done thousands of times before, it's amazing how much better you get. Concentrated practice helps achieve this, and it's amazing how much less you fuss about an approach shot the wind pushes to the right when you're confident you can get up and down for par.

Two great golf books - Tim Gallwey's "The Inner Game of Golf", and Michael Murphy's "Golf in the Kingdom" - address this issue in different ways, the former practically, the latter lyrically, but both agree that golf is a game where you have to let your "true swing" emerge (Murphy) and "get out of your own way" (Gallwey). Tremendous reads for anyone who loves the game.

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