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Dan with the plan: late bloomer half-way along path to PGA Tour

FED up with the day job?

Dan McLaughlin will eventually dedicate eight years of his life to becoming a professional golfer
Dan McLaughlin will eventually dedicate eight years of his life to becoming a professional golfer

What would you sacrifice in an attempt, however unlikely, to become a world class athlete instead? In the case of Dan McLaughlin, it is eight of the best years of his life.

It is no wonder sports scientists are keeping a close eye on the American. He was an otherwise unremarkable 30-year-old commercial photographer when he hung up his cameras in April, 2010, and embarked on a mission to become a professional golfer.

Among the many potential pitfalls which might undermine his audacious plan to play on the PGA Tour alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson was one which was particularly striking: he had never played 18 holes in his life.

Bearing in mind that Nick Faldo, who won six major championships, was regarded as a late developer because he did not take up golf until he was 13, what chance is there for McLaughlin? Since he readily admits he has no obvious sporting prowess, the first, instinctive, reaction is that his aim is risible. The man himself begs to differ.

The basis for his project, which he has neatly called The Dan Plan, is the theory that talent has little to do with success. This is based on research by a Swedish professor of psychology, K Anders Ericsson, which concluded that roughly 10,000 hours of "deliberate" practice is what produces elite performers in any field - not the myth of a god-given gift.

Popularised in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the premise is now fashionable in many sporting circles, including the Scottish Football Association. But there has never been a human lab rat like McLaughlin willing to sacrifice almost a decade of his adult life to test the theory - hence the fascination with his story. If he succeeds against all the odds, the implications would be enormous.

McLaughlin originally planned to practise 10 hours a day, six days a week, allowing him to reach the magical figure of 10,000 by the end of this year. After consulting with Dr Ericsson, who works at Florida State University, the extent of the commitment required became clearer: only four to six hours a day were to be spent over the ball and the rest of the time would be devoted to non ball-striking activities. But only the four-six hours would count towards the 10,000 total.

That means that far from finishing this year, McLaughlin estimates he will only reach the halfway point of 5000 hours in mid-March. "Judging by my current pace it will take much longer than I originally planned," he admits. "In total I believe it will be about an eight-year project, so I have until about 2018 to finish."

Although it all sounds nutty, McLaughlin, with the help of various academic advisers, has charted a methodical eight-year journey. He did not do anything other than putt for the first four-and-a-half months in 2010. It was the following November - some 18 months after he started out - before he progressed to using a driver.

Woods and the rest of the PGA Tour regulars are not yet quivering about McLaughlin teeing it up against them at the end of the decade but, although he admits that 2013 was a difficult year, the 34-year-old has got his handicap down to a very respectable four. He is even starting to act like a golf pro: he recently changed coach and moved from Nike clubs to Titleist.

"2013 was the toughest year of the project to date," he says. "It was the first time in which I had to take a large step backwards due to some major swing changes. Up until 2013 my progress was fairly linear and the carrot of momentum was always just in front of me. But I made some big transitions which will pave the road for 2014."

The sacrifices are huge. As well as having lost his regular monthly salary, McLaughlin is ploughing through the $100,000 of savings he set aside for the project. He lives in rented accommodation with his partner, Mary, and her two young children. He says the ultimate golfing widow is fine with the project, so much so that he is even planning to introduce her kids to the sport this summer.

Nor is McLaughlin daft. His website not only charts his progress but solicits donations and sells merchandise. He agrees that he is likely to write a book about his golfing odyssey and, who knows, a film could be made as well - especially if he does achieve his unlikely aim of playing on the PGA Tour.

He says he chose golf ahead of other projects - such as excelling at playing musical instruments or architecture - because he wanted to do something he had never done before. Golf is easily measurable which means that progress can be objectively assessed.

Importantly, it is also a sport that a person aged 38 - which McLaughlin will be in 2018 - is capable of playing on equal terms with much younger men.

By playing on the PGA Tour, McLaughlin means competing in at least one tournament and making the cut. Given that this has been beyond the reach of some very promising amateur players, and many professionals, it would be some achievement.

While the short game is key to low scoring - and it is possible to imagine how somebody could reach PGA Tour standards if prepared to practice chipping and putting religiously for eight years - what strikes anybody watching a tournament professional for the first time is just how far they hit the ball off the tee. How can McLaughlin, now in his mid-thirties, hope to compete with that?

"Tour distance is definitely something I am focusing on and working towards," he replies. "Right now my driver swing speed is between 102-107mph, but the point of the new shoulder turn and swing is to eventually be able to average around 110.

"That's still two mph short of PGA Tour average, but around a Zach Johnson distance. I don't imagine, being five foot, nine inches, I will ever be Bubba Watson or Dustin Johnston long, but if I can get the swing to at least 108mph I will be able to play distance-wise."

Three years and nine months into the project does McLaughlin still think he can compete on something approaching level terms with these guys? "Most definitely," he asserts. "That's the goal and that's the path I am on. I could have picked something I did as a child, such as tennis, but then the entire test would be tainted by past experiences. If I could go back to 2010 there's no doubt I would do it all again - this has been a rewarding and excellent adventure to date."

At stake is the belief that it is focused hard work and practice, not inherent talent, which creates world-class performers - whether it be in sport, music and the arts, or in life.

If McLaughlin succeeds, it would be very hard to argue.

The full story behind McLaughlin's bid to become a PGA Tour player can be found on www.thedanplan.com

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