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. 

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  1. Chris S says:

    “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?

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  2. Nick says:

    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?

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  3. Trevor says:

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

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  4. Andrew says:

    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!

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  5. Joe says:

    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.

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  6. Val B says:

    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.

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    • rehajm says:

      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!

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  7. Steve Nations says:

    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.

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    • Steve says:

      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.”

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    • Dominique says:

      To be a musician you just need to not be tone deaf or have physical challenges. I can tell you, as a former concert violinist who practiced at least 17000 hours by the time I was 18, that a violinist (“natural” or not) who did 1000 hours would likely still sound like crap. My little sister does. You know how I got awesome & played Carnegie Hall several times? I put in the time. 2-6 hours a day when I was little and 8-12 hours A DAY after that. I’m not sure talent exists. If all tones sound the same to you, yes, you’ll likely always suck. But if you’ve got enough fingers and can use them, it’s practicing wisely with a good method for many, many, many hours that will get you good.

      I don’t know much about golf so I don’t have an opinion on Dan’s method, but I wish him the best! 10000 hours is a looooong time. It’s great he has the enthusiasm & dedication to stick to it.

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      • Stephen says:

        Dominique, you are the only one here qualified to comment. All others are merely speculating. As a guitarist, I know you are correct. When I started, I had zero talent. Somewhere, along about the 3000 hour mark, you begin to surprise yourself and something takes hold. I suspect that if that does not happen, you give up. Like almost everything in life, those who persevere with focus and passion win in the end. I believe with every fiber in my body that perseverance will always win; but not just dogged perseverance. I believe it takes total commitment, total faith, total confidence, and a never-flagging enthusiasm. 10,000 hours of doubt and worry will not cut it. Personally, I am cheering for Dan. If every hour of putting, wedging, and driving – method be damned – is cheerfully and confidently slogged through, about 8 years from now Dan will be a player in the US Open settling this issue forever.

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  8. Ivan says:

    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?

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    • Nick Chertock says:

      Dan had some savings and he spends almost zero money day to day. He’s gaining more and more sponsorships. For instance Nike just sent him a set of clubs.

      -Nick Chertock
      Founder of GolfProgress

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