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What is a Mulligan?

If you have ever watched your first shot of the day disappear over the out-of-bounds fence, you have probably wished that you could turn back time and start all over again. Well, in golf, you can do just that, at least sometimes! anyone who has been playing for any length of time will probably know the magic word “Mulligan.” If you don’t, here is the answer to your prayers and the key question “What is a Mulligan?”

  • A Mulligan is a shot that you simply retake.
  • It (unfortunately) doesn’t work in competition
  • You can’t use a Mulligan in a handicap round
  • The origins of the Mulligan are (more or less) a mystery

What is a Mulligan Really?

Essentially, a Mulligan is just the opportunity to play a shot over again. Generally, this something that happens on the first tee, but in theory it could be anywhere on the course. It is associated with the less than elite golfer, but is actually fairly common at levels of friendly play. For example, if I am playing with friends, we might hit a few balls on the range before starting or we might just be hitting our first shot of the day cold.

Let’s say my partner steps up to the ball and tops it 20 yards in front of him. I might say something like “don’t worry about it, take a Mulligan” or “hit another one if you want.” He will reload and hit a second tee shot if he wants and pick up the first as we walk past.

The key thing is, it is generally the other player(s) who will allow the first golfer to have another go. Hitting a terrible shot and giving yourself a Mulligan is frowned on a lot of the time. It falls in the same category as deciding to give yourself a putt. Fine for a playing partner to say, but not something you should do yourself!

Mulligan’s in Competition-No!

It goes without saying that a Mulligan is something for a friendly game. If you smash your tee shot out-of-bounds in an official/competitive round, that’s it. You are playing three off the tee. With the new world handicap system, it is also possible to put in rounds for your handicap outside of competition in many places and the same goes here too. Every shot counts. In fact, this is why a lot of golfers think they shoot lower scores than is really the case.

Someone I play with now and again regularly shares his scores with me. “I was 5 over today” or whatever. Now, this guy is definitely not a cheat. He wouldn’t improve his lie, ‘find’ a lost ball miraculously in the rough or whatever. And yet, I know that when he says he was five over, he probably wasn’t. He will be hitting a couple of shots from certain positions to practice, which is fine, I do this all the time. However, he will be giving himself an unconscious Mulligan by probably counting or playing the better ball out of the two.

When you count up the score, it means that the five over round might in reality have been closer to ten over. As I said, this guy would never do this is competition and his handicap reflects his true game and he is certainly not cheating anyone because these are just practice rounds. This isn’t the case for lots of golfers though. Most of us probably know someone who is ten shots better on the score card when he or she plays on their own!

One format that does let you discount shots is the scramble or Texas scramble of course. Although it isn’t a Mulligan, playing with a partner or partners means that you can often ignore your shot or have a free shot. For example, if your partner has hit the fairway, you can try to absolutely smash it. If it works, that is great, but if it flies off into the trees, you can forget about it and simply play from your partners ball.

The Origin of a Mulligan in Golf

The short answer is, nobody knows! I have never actually met anyone who has any idea of the truth behind the origin. After a little bit of research on, I did find a couple of possibilities.

  1. It is named after a Canadian Hotelier called David Mulligan from the early part of the century who either re teed after hitting a particularly long drive out-of-bounds or possibly was given an extra shot by his playing partners after a particularly difficult drive in to the club over bumpy roads to help settle his nerves.
  2. The other original “Mulligan” may have been a locker room attendant called John “Buddy” Mulligan who apparently made a habit of giving himself a second bite of the cherry when his tee shot went awry.
  3. It may have come from the name given to a free bottle of liquor at a bar that was often placed on the bar for customers to help themselves.

There are actually a few more possible explanations but these three are perhaps the most wide-spread. The most likely one really is probably the first because there is supposedly an interview with the man himself dating from the early fifties in which he verified the story and said he himself called this second shot a ‘correction shot’.

So there you have it, the infamous Mulligan. As long as you don’t use it to cheat on the score and it is something that you and your playing partners agree on, it is something that can make the game more fun in a friendly round. When I play on my own or with friends just for fun and without keeping score, I often hit a second shot. It is good for practice and also I prefer to talk to my playing partners on the fairway rather than spending my time hunting for balls in the rough!

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