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The Mystery Behind the Mulligan

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Twenty years ago, I played a lot of golf with a guy we had nicknamed “The Best Mulligan Player in Golf.” He’d perfected the art by keeping an extra ball in his front left pants pocket and incorporating a reach for it into his cut short follow-through before his first ball had even hit the apex of its flight. It was a near seamless (and shameless) motion that allowed him to hit again without even slowing play. The thing that constantly amazed me, though, was not his rapid re-load and ability to get off successive shots in a manner that might have rivaled the supposed prowess of Lee Harvey Oswald, but how his mulligan was always so good following a shot that was so bad just an instant prior. How could the same swing that had produced a snap hook or a dead block 40 yards offline seemingly find the middle of the fairway, or drop a ball a foot or two from the pin with relative ease the next?

Now were he truly unique, I’d suggest we bring him in to a lab somewhere to be studied, but truth be told, he’s not alone. Whether you call it a mulligan a breakfast ball or just a plain do-over, golf’s most redemptive invention often seems to have an almost magical way of showing us glimpses of the hidden aptitudes inside each and every one of us that are just waiting to be released… but does it? Because if it’s really as easy as just dropping a second ball, then maybe it’s long past time we studied its origins, how it has become so pervasive, and what we can all learn from the mystery behind the mulligan.

The term mulligan came into regular use somewhere between the 1920s and the 1940s in the U.S. There are two generally accepted theories of the term’s origin, which are both credible and particularly notable because it appears that mulligan is the only regularly used golf term named after a particular person or persons. One of those persons was a Canadian amateur by the name of David Bernard Mulligan, a prominent former member of Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. As the story goes, Mulligan would drive his regular foursome to the club back in the 1920s. Upon arrival, Mulligan always complained about the fact that his hands were numb from navigating the rough and bumpy roads along the way. On one such day, he teed up a second ball on the first tee, declaring he was hitting a “correction shot” after a particularly poor drive. His playing partners asked him what he would call that. “A Mulligan,” he said, and his foursome all laughed. Considering the circumstances, they agreed to let him go ahead and play the second ball.

After Mulligan and his partner ended up winning the match by a shot, there was some discussion about the second ball he had played, and the resulting agreement was that henceforth you could play a second ball from the first tee if you didn’t like the first one. Once other members heard about the practice, its use spread along with the story to the point that Mulligan was even interviewed about it a generation later.

Despite that well-chronicled story, there is at least one other that apparently has enough merit that it’s proudly noted on the responsible club’s website. John A. “Buddy” Mulligan was a locker room attendant in the 1930s at Essex Fells Country Club in New Jersey. Mulligan was apparently often sucked into money games with assistant professional Dave O’Connell and Des Sullivan, the eventual golf editor of the Newark Evening News, during the week when few members were around because of The Depression. One afternoon, after hitting a poor opening tee shot, Mulligan begged his partners to be given another shot since they had been practicing all morning and he had not. After receiving a pardon for his poor opening tee shot, Mulligan proudly bragged to his members in the locker room for months about having negotiated the extra shot. The members apparently loved the idea so much they began giving themselves Mulligans, and Sullivan subsequently began using the term in his pieces in the Newark Evening News.

Now as interesting as those stories are, and whether or not either of the latter two is the true origin of why most of us now call our desire to re-hit certain shots now and then a mulligan, I believe the reasons why we hit those first shots so poorly and why we so often hit those second shots better a much more intriguing line of conversation. And if you’ve read this far, I’ll assume it has more to do with learning how to capture some of the magic of the mulligan on that first shot, rather than anything to do with my gifted story-telling.

Well, first of all, the reasons each of us hit poor shots on the first tee and elsewhere are obviously as numerous as the stripes on the balls of the driving ranges of the world. Fear, nerves, unrealistic expectations, unreliable swing mechanics, pressure, mis-placed focus, a lack of confidence, failure to commit to the shot, failure to trust our swing, an inability to stay in the present, being overly attached to our out-sized egos, and a laundry list of other things can each individually be enough to cause a poor golf shot. And when you combine two or more of these issues together, you can have a wicked combination that makes it no small wonder that we actually manage to ever hit that first shot well.

The most obvious reason we perform better when we reach for a mulligan is that, other than unreliable swing mechanics, most of those excuses, contributing factors, and conditions for why we hit poor shots initially are either absent or at least much diminished. And if you need the ever-present potential of being able to drop a second ball to hit a decent golf shot now and then, for better or worse, your problems on that first shot are more mental than mechanical. Like the guy or gal who has won the U.S. Open three times on the driving range, but who suddenly slices it into the woods like Judge Smails once it actually counts, if we struggle with executing once the spotlights are on, the pressure is mounting, and or when it’s time to actually start counting all those ill-fated attempts then we need to start this journey by taking a hard look inward. And if you’re the type who plays with a second ball in your front pants pocket to help relieve some of that pressure, while you may be on the course, in a sense, you’ve never even left the range.

Before taking that inward glance, though, I need to say that when I first set out to write this, I had intended to offer a few strategies, backed up by the latest neuroscience, to help you get things right the first time. Some simple mindfulness practices that I use with students every day can really help tone down that mental-space junk we tend to have floating around in our heads that contribute to the problem. Along the way, though, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

  1. Just as the reasons for why you struggle on that first shot are individual and varied, so are the potential fixes and diving into those waters in this brief space would force me to paint everyone with too broad a brush to remotely do it justice.
  2. There is one element to this that is nearly universal, and so incredibly basic about our love/hate relationship with the mulligan and how it effects our psyche that I think it gets instinctively overlooked… how it reinforces our belief in the better golfer that resides somewhere deep inside us all.

So when it comes to that inward glance, we need to start by making sure we’ve taken an honest look at all those mulligans to ensure we aren’t viewing them through the rose-colored lenses of self-delusion. Is that second ball really always so magical? Have we, without being aware of it, mentally discarded all those times when our mulligans weren’t all that special because we so want to identify with those times when it was? Could our desire to identify with that mysteriously talented golfer we believe is somewhere inside of us resulted in us unintentionally deluding ourselves into believing that the only thing standing in the way of letting that better golfer out is ourselves?

Maybe our true first step needs to be a re-examination of that storyline running inside our heads to see if it’s actually grounded in fact. Have we truly put in the work? Have we even once performed to the standard we’ve been subconsciously holding ourselves to? That little voice in our heads gets awfully loud in moments of pressure, but is it even louder when it’s scolding us for not performing up to what we’ve deluded ourselves into believing is our true ability?

Now please don’t confuse what I’m saying here as a cry to collectively lower our standards. If you read my article on club championships you know I think in many ways they need to be raised, and belief in our potential is a fire I want to stoke, not extinguish. That belief and the hope it instills in us is the biggest part of what drives us to improve (what pays my mortgage), and, like that one good shot on the last hole, is truly what keeps us coming back. We need to be realistic, however, and make sure we’re not confusing belief in our potential with the belief that we’ve done everything we can and should do to live up that potential.

So what the mulligan may ultimately represent is not just our desire to score better, but to be better, and prove to ourselves that given the right set of circumstances we can. Most of us have come to terms with the fact that something, something related to how we’re handling pressure, the spotlight, or even the maddening specter of not living up to our true potential is getting in the way with letting the true golfer that lies buried somewhere deep inside of us out. And a big part of why we keep at it, day after day, round after round, month after month, year after year, is to discover that missing link between the golfer we are, and the one we know we can be.

So where do we start the search? Well, the first place you need to look is at your expectations and make sure they are in line with your abilities. And if those abilities aren’t truly up to the level of your expectations, then I’d like to selfishly suggest a visit to your local PGA Pro. Just remember, the secret to any self-improvement, like Ben Hogan once said, is nearly always hidden in the dirt of a little hard work.

Second, believe in your ability, if you’ve done it even once before you have the ability to hit that ball right the first time, even if it’s not every time, and don’t let that little voice get too loud at times when you don’t.

Next, take the temptation of that second ball out of your front left pants pocket or wherever else it might reside. The security blanket that little escape hatch has been providing and the temptation to use it just might have been at least part of the problem all along.

And finally, if circumstances (and the rules) dictate that you must hit a second ball, instead of declaring it a mulligan, a breakfast ball or whatever else you may have referred to it in the past, try calling it what the Scots do… three from the tee.

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Mike Dowd is the author of the new novel COMING HOME and the Lessons from the Golf Guru: Wit, Wisdom, Mind-Tricks & Mysticism for Golf and Life series. He has been Head PGA Professional at Oakdale Golf & CC in Oakdale, California since 2001, and is serving his third term on the NCPGA Board of Directors and Chairs the Growth of the Game Committee. Mike has introduced thousands of people to the game and has coached players that have played golf collegiately at the University of Hawaii, San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, University of the Pacific, C.S.U. Sacramento, C.S.U. Stanislaus, C.S.U. Chico, and Missouri Valley State, as men and women on the professional tours. Mike currently lives in Turlock, California with his wife and their two aspiring LPGA stars, where he serves on the Turlock Community Theatre Board, is the past Chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission and is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock. In his spare time (what's that?) he enjoys playing golf with his girls, writing, music, fishing and following the foibles of the Sacramento Kings, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and, of course, the PGA Tour. You can find Mike at mikedowdgolf.com.

12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Koyote Ken

    Jul 11, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    My foursome calls them simply “DCT’s”………..
    Stands for “Don’t Count That!”

  2. Powder skier

    Jul 8, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    Now please explain why the maker of a hole in one buys drinks

  3. Devin

    Jul 6, 2016 at 12:54 pm

    “The thing that constantly amazed me, though, was not his rapid re-load and “ability to get off successive shots in a manner that might have rivaled the supposed prowess of Lee Harvey Oswald”

    Really?

    • No WMD

      Jul 6, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      I know, right? The exaggerations of these writers make them sound so pedestrian and immature

  4. alexdub

    Jul 6, 2016 at 11:27 am

    I love these types of articles here. Good research and great write up, Mike.

    • mike dowd

      Jul 6, 2016 at 11:57 am

      Thanks Alex. Glad you enjoyed it. It’s amazing how when it comes to golf so often that the more things change, the more things stay the same. While they might not have been called Mulligans or Breakfast Balls before the 1930’s, I’m sure people were still taking them. 🙂

  5. RG

    Jul 6, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Breakfast ball, gotta love’em.

    • Double Mocha Man

      Jul 7, 2016 at 11:32 am

      Don’t forget the Lunch Ball, for the back nine. The Happy Hour Ball if you bring an adult drink onto the course. The Appetizer Ball, the Dinner Ball, the Dessert Ball, the After-Dinner-Cigar Ball and the Twilight-I-Didn’t-See-Where-That-Ball-Went Ball. It just depends on what time of day and in what situation you need to hit a second ball. BTW, one man scrambles are perfect for those who like to hit a second ball.

  6. Tom

    Jul 5, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    I apply the same ” do over” principle to relationships. That’s why I’ve been married three times….lol

    • Philip

      Jul 5, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      Darn! You got me by 1/2 – I’ve only been married 2 1/2 times – lol

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On Spec: Interview with GOLFTEC VP of Instruction Nick Clearwater

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In this episode of On Spec brought to you by Golf Pride Grips, Ryan talks with GOLFTEC’s Vice President of Instruction Nick Clearwater about his history with golf, teaching, and how he and his team at GolfTec help golfers play better.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

Want more GolfWRX Radio? Check out our other shows (and the full archives for this show) below. 

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From the GolfWRX Vault: The day I met Ben Hogan

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In addition to continuing to look forward to new content that will serve and engage our readership, we also want to showcase standout pieces that remain relevant from years past. In particular, articles with a club building or instruction focus continue to deliver value and convey useful information well after their publish dates.

We want to make sure that once an article falls off the front page as new content is covered it isn’t relegated to the back pages of our website.

We hope that you’ll appreciate and find value in this effort.

Industry veteran (and one heckuva writer) Tom Stites, who served as the Director of Product Development at Nike’s Oven, tells the story of how he landed a job as an engineer at the Ben Hogan Company and what his first meeting with Mr. Hogan was like.

Get a taste for Stites’ excellent piece from 2015 below.

Getting near my boy was the real reason I wanted to get to Texas, but the golf was a sweet attraction, too. With a perfect touch and timing, the Good Lord prompted the Hogan Company to advertise for a new product development engineer. On just the right day, I was changing flights at DFW and bought a copy of the Fort Worth paper. In the want ads I saw something like, ”Ben Hogan will pay you cash money to engineer and work on golf clubs.” So I applied.

My product development experience at Kohler got me the interview, but the Good Lord got me the job. It was truly a real miracle, because in 1986 I knew zero about club design and manufacturing. I was quickly made the boss of the model shop, and was to manage the master club maker Gene Sheeley and his incredible team of long-time club artisans.

Me as their boss? That was a joke.

I knew a few things about physics at that time, but these guys were the real deal in club design. I knew immediately that I was in over my head, so I went to Gene and professed my ignorance. I pleaded with him to teach me how to do the job right. At that, I guess he considered me harmless and over the next number of years he became my Yoda. His voice was even a bit like Yoda.

Read the full piece here.

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Why do Tour players prefer fades over draws from the tee box?

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There is a growing trend on the PGA Tour and other professional golf tours where some of the game’s best players favor a fade from the tee box. Amateur golfers often struggle with golf shots that slice away from their target. These shots can lead them out of play and have them eagerly chasing a more neutral or drawing shot shapes. Additionally, a large fraction of low handicap and professional golfers play a golf shot that draws repeatedly onto their target. These thoughts can leave you wondering why anyone would choose to play a fade rather than a draw with their driver.

The debate over whether players should fade or draw their golf shots has been intensely lobbied on either side. While this is highly player specific, each particular shot shape comes with a set of advantages and disadvantages. In order to discuss why elite golfers are choosing to play a fade and why you might as well, we must first explore how each shot shape is created and the unintended effects within each delivery combination. This article explores the ideas that lead some of the most outstanding players in the world to choose a fade as their go-to shot shape for their driver.

Before examining what makes each shot unique, golfers should be familiar with some common club fitting and golf swing terminology. Club path, clubface angle, impact location, spin-axis or axis tilt, and spin loft are all detailed below.

The curvature of a golf ball through the air is dependent on the backspin and sidespin of each shot. These spin rates are directly linked with each players golf swing and delivery characteristics. During every shot, each golfer will deliver the golf club back to the golf ball in a specific orientation. The relationship between the golf club face and the path of that club will determine much of how the golf ball will travel. A golf clubface that is closed to a club path will result in golf shots that either draw or hook. A clubface more open to the club’s path with create a shot that fades or slices. It is important that face angle measurements are taken in reference to the club path as terms like “out-to-in” or “in-to-out” can results in either of these two curvatures depending on face angle and impact location measurements.

Impact location should not be overlooked during this exchange and is a vital component of creating predictable golf shots that find the fairway and reach their maximum distances. As strikes move across the clubface of a driver gear effect begins to influence how the golf ball travels. In its simplest form, gear effect will help turn the golf ball back to the center of the golf club head. Impact locations in the heel will curve towards the middle and lead to golf shots with a more pronounced fading shape. Toe strikes lead to the opposite reaction and produce more draw or hook spin. Striking a golf ball from the upper half of the driver clubface produce higher launches and less spin, while strikes from the bottom create lower launches with higher backspin rates.

Spin-axis tilt or simply axis tilt is a result of the amalgamation of face angle, club path and strike locations. A golf shot will curve in the direction that its axis tilts during flight. Golfers familiar with launch monitors like Trackman and GCQuad, can reference axis tilt and spin-axis tilt measures for this measurement. Shots that curve to the left will have a leftward tilted axis, and shots to the right a rightward axis tilt. Golf shots tilting to the left and to the right are given names depending on which hand is dominant for that golfer. A draw or hook is a golf shot that curves in the air away from the golfers dominate hand. Right-handed players will see a golf ball hit with a draw spin from right to left in the air. Left-handed golfers see their draw shots spin from left to right. Fades and slices have the opposite shapes.

Spin loft is another critical component of creating and maintaining the flight of a golf ball. In concert with the spin-axis tilt of the golf ball, the spin loft influences the amount of backspin a golf ball possesses and will determine much of how stable that golf ball’s flight becomes. Golf shots hit with more backspin curve less violently than golf shots hit with too little spin especially in the wind. Spin loft is exemplified as golfers find themselves much more accurate with their wedges than their driver. More spin equals more stability, and this leads us to why professional players opt for their fade.

Modern drivers can be built to maximize the performance of each golfer on their best swings, but what about their misses? Golfers often lose confidence standing over their golf shots if they see the ball overdrawing or hooking too often. Overdraws and hooks create golf ball flight conditions that are unpredictable and lead to directional and distance detriments that can cause dropped shots and penalties. Because of this, elite right-handed players do not often like to see the golf ball going left from the tee box. By reducing their chances of hitting hooking tee shots, golfers often feel more freedom to swing the golf club freely and make smooth, powerful motions. This is never more evident than when watching Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson hit their drivers. While both players hit the golf ball both ways, their go-to shot from the tee is a left-to-right curving fade.

But wait, doesn’t a draw go further than a fade? While it is not inevitable that a draw will fly further or roll out more than a fade, the clubface and club path conditions needed at impact to produce each shape often lead to differences in spin rates and launch angles that affect distance. Less dynamic loft created by a closed clubface can lead to lower launch, less spin, and more distance. The drawback of these conditions is the reduced spin loft and decreased stability. So how much distance is worth losing to find more fairways? As we continue to see some of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour win tournaments and major championships distance is the premium.

Luckily, modern drivers and club fitting techniques have given players a perfect blend of distance and accuracy. By manipulating the center of gravity of each driver, golfers can create longer shots from their best strikes without giving up protection from their mishits. Pushing the weights more near the clubface of drivers has given players the ability to present more loft at impact without increasing backspin. The ability to swing freely and know that if you miss your intended strike pattern your shot will lose distance but not end up in the most dangerous hazards have given players better, more repeatable results.

While it can be advantageous for casual golfers and weekend players to chase as many yards as possible, players that routinely hit the golf ball beyond 300 yards can afford their misses to fall back if they will remain in play and give them a chance to find the green in two shots. More stability when things do not go as planned thanks to increased spin lofts and less violent curvature has allowed elite level golfers to perform consistently even under the most demanding situations and it is why we continue to see a growing number of players favor a fade from their tee shots.

 

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