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Opinion & Analysis

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

Breaking down The Challenge: Japan Skins—pros and cons for each player

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For the first time in over a decade, the PGA Tour will have a skins game event on its calendar, with Tiger Woods, Jason Day, Hideki Matsuyama, and Rory McIlroy participating in “The Challenge: Japan Skins.” With the abundance of star power in their foursome, here’s a quick look at why each of them may or may not walk away with the most skins at the end of their round.

Tiger Woods

PROS: The skins game system and exhibition match atmosphere will be a new experience for his competitors, but Woods has played in these types of events before. The excitement and pageantry from the event will be a familiar setting for him, and he may have an intimidation factor in his favor. The reigning Masters champion still can catch fire during a round, as well. For the 2018-19 PGA Tour season, his five-hole streak of scoring birdie or better during a single round was the longest such stretch among his fellow skins game participants. If he creates a similar streak on Monday, it may result in a profitable day on the course.

CONS: Tiger hasn’t played a competitive round in over two months, with his last start coming at the BMW Championship in mid-August. The competitive juices may take a while to get going, and coupled with his recent knee surgery, the rust on his game may be on full display.

Jason Day

PROS: With the skins game format rewarding aggressive play, Day will look to capitalize with his par-breaking ability. During the 2018-19 season, he made birdie or better on 22.9% of the holes he played. Additionally, he seems to like this time of the year; over the past couple of seasons, the Aussie has played very well in the month of October on the PGA Tour. In 2017 and 2018, his worst finish on the Asian swing of the schedule was T-11. He continued his good play in Asia with a T31 finish at The CJ Cup in South Korea this week.

CONS: While he a solid season on tour, it wasn’t to the same standard Day normally displays. He missed five cuts, the most times he missed weekend play since 2010. Prior to The CJ Cup, he missed the cut in two of his past four PGA Tour starts.

Hideki Matsuyama

PROS: Playing in his native Japan, Matsuyama looks to continue his great success in his home country. While he has enjoyed international success, he’s even better at home, with eight of his 14 professional wins coming in Japan. Additionally, Matsuyama can fill the scorecard with red numbers with the best of them. The Japanese star was third-best on the PGA Tour in total birdies during the 2018-19 campaign. His birdie barrages helped him finish tied-fifth for most sub-par rounds for the most recent season. Spurred on by his countrymen, the golfer representing the host nation will look to put on a show, and he has the firepower to do so.

CONS: The support of the crowd in Japan may be a double-edged sword, and the pressure to perform well may throw Matsuyama off his game. If the skins come to a putting contest, he will have the biggest challenge of all the competitors. His strokes-gained-putting statistic was the worst of all four competitors for the previous PGA Tour campaign.

Rory McIlroy

PROS: The reigning PGA Player of the Year may be the favorite on Monday. He played well throughout the season, with wins scattered throughout the calendar. His most recent play was hot, as he finished the campaign with a win at the Tour Championship. Among the leaders in nearly all the scoring categories, his competitors will have to be on top of their game to win skins from the Northern Irishman. McIlroy was the best on Tour in scoring average, helped by his making birdie or better on nearly 26% of all holes he played. His scoring average was even lower during later tee times, and with the finish to be set under floodlights, the bulk of the competition will occur during McIlroy’s favorite time of day.

CONS: Like Woods, this event will be McIlroy’s first since August. Not having played in nearly two months, coupled with this event being his first foray in an exhibition skins match, may be a disadvantage.

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Bogey Golf: Playing a round with pro

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Larry plays a round of golf with PGA Canada pro Evan Bowser. Evan teaches Larry a bunch of tips. We also discuss would you quit playing golf for 30 million dollars? and construct a Frankenstein’s monster to create the greatest golfer of all time.

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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The great Butch Harmon is was honored at the 2019 Houston Open, and he shares his experiences from a lifetime of golf with host Michael Williams, including what’s in the bag for the greatest teacher ever. Also features PGA Tour winner Troy Merritt talking about wining despite adversity and his work with Galvin Green golf apparel.

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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