The Mulligan

Patron Saint of Forgiveness

Is the most familiar name in golf Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer or Tiger? May I suggest Mulligan, a name invoked by most golfers during most games. But who has any clue as to the identity of this mysterious patron saint of forgiveness? I decided to look into the matter.

The glossary of Peter Dobereiner’s Golf Rules Explained seemed a logical place to start searching for answers. Dobereiner says, “ Mulligan—The practice, quite unofficial, of allowing a player a free second drive when his first tee shot is unsatisfactory.” Period, close quote. Is there nothing more?

So I consulted The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms From 1500 to Present by Peter Davies. This book tells us that the origin of Mulligan is “obscure.” It quotes a 1960 Rex Lardner passage: “I don’t even know if there was a Mulligan. But he gave his name to a wonderful gesture—letting you play a bad first drive over and no penalty.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary lists only Mulligan stew, an Irish beef concoction that doesn’t seem to have much to do with golf.

An article submitted by a golfer from upstate New York claims that our patron saint was in fact a Robert Mulligan of Montreal. Our correspondent writes, “It seems that Mr. Mulligan had the task of driving his foursome to St. Lambert Country Club in the 1920s, and since Mulligan had to wrestle the steering wheel over rough road, his fellow players allowed him an extra drive on the first tee.” A fair trade for gas money.

Yet another venerable source says the Mulligan was actually Dave Mulligan, an expatriate Canadian who moved to the United States with the Biltmore Hotel chain and became a member of Winged Foot Golf Club, which helped his social status but apparently not his drives from the first tee. He was a decent player, but he could never get off No. 1. So the sporting members of Winged Foot gave the fellow a free second ball.

I contacted our friends at Winged Foot to see if this path to the saint was strewn with flowers. It was. Happily, Winged Foot claims Mulligan as its own. According to their book Winged Foot Story, “An early member of Winged Foot was one David B. Mulligan, a gentleman in the hotel business who came to us from Canada in 1937, when he joined Winged Foot and became president of New York’s famous Biltmore Hotel. He is described as a friendly soul and raconteur who loved to tell his life’s experiences while sitting in the upper locker room lounge:

“When he came to Winged Foot, legend has it that he would join a favorite foursome, not always the same, but usually made up of cronies in that pre-war era who loved life and golf and their young club.

“Mulligan played a fair game, but he was, as they say, a slow starter. His drive off the first tee oft went astray. Turning plaintively to his friends he would plead, or perhaps only look, saying “Another?” Being generous souls they would nod, permissively, if not enthusiastically. David is remembered by our senior members today for his warmth, and the pleasure he had while sitting in the lounge with his Scotch and soda, proudly claiming credit for golf’s most generous gesture, the Mulligan.”

Though Royal & Ancient may have no official comment, the request for a mulligan on the first tee of St. Andrews is likely to fall upon unsympathetic ears. In fact, even Winged Foot adds a disclaimer at the bottom of its story:

“We should say that the Mulligan has never been accepted by serious golfers as legitimate. Some who tolerate it passively insist that if the second shot is taken, it must be played. A larger number may take their choice of the two—sometimes called a Finnegan—but at Winged Foot as at many fine golf courses, and among the Scots, it is frowned on if not discouraged altogether.”

So there you have it—the mystery has been solved. While, alas, my research work may not merit a Nobel Prize, may I propose that golfers at least raise a toast (Scotch and soda, preferably) to the immortal David Mulligan.

If you happen to spill the first one all over your shirt, don’t worry. Dave would be most happy if you should just try it again.