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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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Opinion & Analysis

From the GolfWRX Vault: How far should you hit your golf clubs?

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Editor’s note: Jaacob Bowden‘s 2013 piece on how far a club “ought” to carry based on clubhead speed—i.e. how far you should hit your golf clubs–remains one of our most widely read pieces (thanks, Google search). And while seven years have passed since its publication, the data remains the same, and thus the piece remains just as relevant today. 

We’re happy to crack open the GolfWRX Vault for this excellent bit of writing. 


One of the nice things about having all this new fancy technological equipment like Trackman, Flightscope, ShotLink, etc., at various PGA Tour events is that distance data can be gathered for each of the players.

In case you haven’t come across it already, here are the approximate Trackman carry distance averages for men at the professional level.

Average PGA Tour Carry Distances (yards)

Club Carry
Driver (Total) 289
Driver (Carry) 269
3-Wood 243
5-Wood 230
Hybrid 225
3-Iron 212
4-Iron 203
5-Iron 194
6-Iron 183
7-Iron 172
8-Iron 160
9-Iron 148
PW 136

Pretty cool info. Perhaps they hit it farther than you might have thought…or maybe they hit less than you may have been lead to believe based on what you’ve seen on TV, read on the internet, etc.

Since I deal a lot with swing speed training and helping people in general hit the ball farther, a relatively common question I get is, “How far should I hit my clubs for my swing speed?”

Well, since we also know that the average driver swing speed on Tour typically runs around 112 to 113 mph, using a bit of algebra and the above distances we can approximate a guide for how far you could expect to hit the ball (assuming fairly consistent and solid contact) given your personal driver swing speed.

Here are those carry distances.

Approximate Carry Distances by Driver Swing Speed (mph)

 Approximate Carry Distances by Driver Swing Speed (mph)

I took the ranges down to 60 and 70 mph because those are swing speeds I’ll encounter when working with some amateur women and seniors. I also went up to 140 mph because numerous long drivers I’ve trained can get their drivers up that high (RE/MAX World Long Drive champions like Joe Miller, Jamie Sadlowski and Ryan Winther can actually reach over 150 mph).

Aside from using the chart as a general reference point, here are a few other things that I think are worth pointing out:

First, these numbers are based off how the average Tour player strikes the ball. Although Tour players are overall good ball strikers with all their clubs, most of them are actually not as efficient (the Tour average is about 2.58 yards/mph of swing speed) as they can be when it comes to distance with their drivers because on average they hit drives that launch too low and with too much spin.

LGPA Tour players (2.65 yards/mph of swing speed) and Professional Long Drivers are actually more distance efficient with their drivers…but that’s a topic for another article. The good news for you is that greater carry and total-driving distances can be achieved at all the range of swing speeds shown above if you are a more efficient driver than the average male tour player at 2.58 yards/mph of swing speed.

With a 2-degree change in driver loft and some minor adjustments made to his swing path, angle of attack, etc, one of my amateur students went from being an already above-average efficient driver at 2.61 yards/mph to an extremely efficient one at 2.75 yards/mph. So with no change to his 102 mph swing speed, he increased his driving distance average from 266 to 280. Then after some swing speed training, he got up to 112 mph and can now hit drives around 307 yards with that same efficiency of 2.75 yards/mph. That’s 41 more yards!

Second, the club distances are based on the driver swing speeds that you would get from a system like FlightScope and Trackman. So if at all possible, get yourself checked on one of those. Otherwise, if you measure with something like a Speed Stik (which measure higher in my experience), you could get a false sense of how far you might expect to hit the ball.

As another example, Sports Sensors Swing Speed Radars (SSR) also read faster. It should be pointed out that SSRs are still a great personal training aid, and because of their accuracy and relative affordability and portability, they are actually the radar I recommend in my swing speed training programs.

However, the Doppler radar in an SSR measures the fastest moving part of the club head (typically the toe) versus a Trackman or FlightScope, which each have proprietary algorithms to calculate the speed at the center of the club face. For this reason, SSRs will read about 5 to 12 percent faster, depending on how you as an individual move the driver through impact. If you have an SSR, just hit 5 to 10 balls with it and a Trackman or FlightScope at the same time and you’ll find out your personal difference for sake of comparison.

Third, the above numbers can be useful for a good general reference, but like I mentioned in my article about understand distance variance, recognize that carry distances can vary a lot depending on conditions. Slopes, wind, temperature, altitude, etc., are all things that can affect how far the ball flies, so remember to factor that in.

Fourth, keep in mind potential loft differences between your clubs and the ones here. As a general rule of thumb, club manufacturers have made their club lofts (especially in the irons) continually stronger over the years as a way of marketing and selling consumers the new clubs.

Many top Tour players are being paid to play the latest clubs, which could mean they might also be playing irons with stronger lofts than the set you are playing. This isn’t always the case, however, but it’s another thing to be aware of.

Last, once you start approaching less than 80 mph with the driver, notice how the distances start bunching up between clubs.  At this point, you start getting to an area where you really don’t need a full set of 14 clubs. If this is you, perhaps you might also find that you hit a 3-wood or 5-wood further than a normal driver.

My wife is very strong and athletic, however, as a beginner who doesn’t play or practice very much, she hasn’t developed much swing speed. For that reason, we got her fitted for a 9-club set of Wishon 730CLs, a set that is designed specifically for men and women with less than 80 mph of club head speed.

The shafts are very light, the driver is 16 degrees and only 42 inches, the fairway woods are 20 and 26 degrees (versus the commonly used 15- and 19-degree fairway woods), and the remaining hybrids/irons are gapped out in 6-degree loft increments (compared to the normal 3- or 4-degree). Also, since many beginners, lesser skilled players and those with slower swing speeds can struggle with really high lofted wedges, the highest lofted wedge in the set is 54 degrees.

All of these things combine to provide a driver that can actually be hit in the air for distance, clubs that have substantial distance gapping, plus it’s just less clubs in general to lug around and choose from.

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Opinion & Analysis

Barney Adams: Why we play golf

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I played golf the other day with friends. COVID-19 restrictions, but we got out. They will attest that I stunk, but that isn’t news or the basis for this piece.

Normally that kind of golfing experience has me in borderline depression searching for a swing change that I know will allow me to play at my fantasy level. What was remarkably different was the pleasure. Being outside, sunshine, fresh air, joking with friends, enduring the glares from my partner. It was four hours that were singular in their positivity made more so by the daily media barrage of doom and being essentially quarantined for all other activities.

To start, one of the great things about golf is when you play, it requires total concentration—world events, personal issues are put on hold. You see, golf isn’t fun, it’s hard and that element is what brings us joy no matter how small our victories.

I’ve played the game for some 70 years and studied it for 40, working in the industry. One of my favorite exercises over the years has been to ask someone who played recently to describe their best shot of their previous round. Immediate answers flow accompanied by a smile or whimsical expression. Whether it’s a tee shot, a chip, putt, it’s a moment of slaying the dragon. And this is golf. Not an 18 or even 9-hole score—one shot, immediate recall and the reason to play again.

We find ourselves today bordering on panic—daily feeds from the media, warning us, frightening us. For those who play the game, it is a needed respite. There have been some articles, and I’m sure more coming, about what will happen in the distant morning. Massive unemployment, lost wages, and crashing investment portfolios, a small sample. Sadly, the media is going to have bad news to emphasize for months to come and there is no question that some of the collateral damage will be human lives and financial well-being.

It’s easy to sit and critique humans making decisions. But when asked the question about affecting lives now or in the future, it’s way more complex. Political expediency focuses on the now knowing there will be a pivot down the road.

What does all this have to do with golf? The game provides an instant middle ground. People can have four hours in the sun and fresh air and the difficulty involved forces them to temporarily shelve daily tribulations. Even with reduced course services as a precaution, just the chance to go to bed at night knowing the weather looks great and you can escape to the course for a few hours…it’s something that brightens one’s outlook.

So, I’m championing the playing of golf, while accepting various related restrictions. I’m championing a few hours where we can forget the drama, the panic, and get our butts kicked by a little white ball. And when done, we’ll make arrangements to play again.

Oh yes, now that the internet is overflowing with tips from golf teaching experts, I really need to play, because I have this new move that is guaranteed, guaranteed, to produce 12 more yards off the tee. You see, it all has to do with the position of the shaft vs. the left knee and…

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Opinion & Analysis

Everyone sucks at golf sometimes

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“Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with tools singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

This quote dates back over 100 years, and has been credited to a number of people through history including Winston Churchill and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Although the game and the tools have changed a lot in 100 years, this quote remains timeless because golf is inherently difficult, and is impossible to master, which is exactly what also makes it so endearing to those that play it.

No matter how hard we practice, or how much time we spend trying to improve there will inevitably be times when we will suck at golf. Just like with other aspects of the game the idea of “sucking” will vary based on your skillset, but a PGA Tour player can hit a hosel rocket shank just as well as a 25 handicap. As Tom Brady proved this past weekend, any golfer can have a bad day, but even during a poor round of golf there are glimmers of hope—like a holed-out wedge, even if it is followed by having your pants rip out on live TV.

I distinctly remember one time during a broadcast when Chris DiMarco hit a poor iron shot on a par 3 and the microphone caught hit exclaim “Come on Chris, you’re hitting it like a 4 handicap out here today” – the shot just barely caught the right side of the green and I imagine a lot of higher handicap golfers said to themselves ” I’d love to hit it like a 4 handicap!”. This is just one example of the expectations we put on ourselves even when most golfers will admit to playing their best when expectations are thrown out the window.

– Gary Larson

Dr. Bob Rotella says golf is not a game of perfect, and that’s totally ok. The game is about the constant pursuit of improvement, not perfection and with that in mind there are going to be days when no matter what we just suck.

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