The Curious History Behind Golf’s Mulligan

The mulligan is a familiar concept to golfers of all skill levels. Who hasn’t wanted a do-over after an errant tee shot or flubbed chip? The ability to take a mulligan – a free extra stroke that doesn’t count – makes the game more fun and allows players to shrug off a mistake. But where did this unique golf term come from? The story behind the origin of “mulligan” is an interesting one filled with myth and mystery.

Myth and Mystery Surround the Term’s Roots

While the mulligan is ubiquitous on scorecards and golf courses today, its origins are somewhat murky. The term first started appearing in the early 20th century, but there are conflicting accounts about who exactly coined it and popularized its use.

According to one of the more common legends, a Canadian golfer named David Mulligan teed off at a club in Montreal in the 1920s and hit a poor first shot. He then re-teed and hit again, calling his extra shot a “correction shot.” When fellow members began adopting his do-over practice, they jokingly referred to it as a “mulligan” in his honor.

However, others claim the term predates David Mulligan’s exploits. Some point to a John A. “Buddy” Mulligan, a locker room attendant at Essex Fells C.C. in New Jersey in the 1930s. Members suggest Buddy would conveniently find lost golf balls for them to hit again after poor shots, and the practice informally took his name.

Research into early 20th century newspapers shows the word “mulligan” used in different contexts around this time – sometimes referring to do-overs in poker hands, not just golf strokes. So David Mulligan may have not been the true originator either. The term’s hazy beginnings are likely tied to its casual, even clandestine early use on courses when players bent the strict rules of golf.

The Practice Spreads via Amateur Golf

In any case, by the late 1930s and 1940s, the mulligan was firmly established in the game. Its popularity spread through amateur club golf, not formal competition. Using mulligans in tournaments or official handicaps systems was frowned upon and considered cheating.

But in casual weekend play, mulligans added fun and kept slow groups moving. The most common protocol allowed each golfer only one extra tee shot per round, taken only on the first tee. Players used their mulligans conservatively to avoid scrutiny or ridicule. The practice appeased golfers frustrated by the difficulty of the opening tee shot when they were still warming up.

Clubs developed various customs around mulligans, like limiting them to certain days or requiring players who take one to buy a round of drinks afterward. Humorous “mulligan cards” were printed with quasi-official language humorously legitimizing the practice. The mulligan became entrenched as an acceptable deviation from strict rules during casual recreational play.

Mainstream Acceptance and Mulligan Variations

By the 1960s and 70s, mulligans went mainstream in golf culture. The famous Masters Par 3 contest adopted a mulligan rule in 1960 – perhaps the term’s highest profile early use. Golf legends like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus spoke about using mulligans in relaxed practice rounds. The famous 1962 golf book Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book instructed readers when it was appropriate to use mulligans as practice.

With the stigma fading, players got more creative in employing mulligans to limit frustration:

  • Hitting a second ball after any errant shot, not just off the first tee
  • Allowing individual players one mulligan per 9 holes or even per hole
  • Agreeing as a group to hit a collective mulligan on a certain hole after multiple bad shots
  • Hitting a second ball and taking whichever one went further or turned out better

As mulligans became engrained in recreational golf culture, players generally self-policed when they were being used appropriately and when players were taking too much license. The informal system relied on golfers’ integrity – making mulligans essentially an honor system accepted exception to the Rules of Golf.

Formal Allowances for Recreational Play

While professional and elite amateur events will likely never permit mulligans, golf’s governing bodies have gradually acknowledged their role in average golfers’ enjoyment.

In 1979, The Rules of Golf officially addressed mulligans under a new “Etiquette” section: “The game is best played when following the Rules and etiquette. But many players also find enjoyment in playing more casually…the use of mulligans is acceptable for casual recreational play if allowed by local rules.”

More recently, groups like the USGA have actively encouraged casual golfers to use mulligans, gimmies and other concessions to speed up play, limit frustration, and make the game more fun. The allowance of mulligans reflects the diverse outdoor experience golf provides – sometimes played strictly, sometimes more flexibly.

For regular amateurs, mulligans now seem firmly entrenched as an optional built-in “gimme.” Used judiciously, they allow players at all skill levels to shrug off an opening blunder, limit triple bogeys, or simply get an extra swing on a beautiful day. Rather than an embarrassment, they are an accepted nod to golfers’ sense of fun and realism. After nearly a century of evolution, the mulligan remains a special perk that makes golf less intimidating and more enjoyable.

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