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Whether it’s a shanked drive, a regrettable restaurant order or a horrifying “reply all” email snafu, the concept of a mulligan is irresistible. We all need one sometimes. Photo by Christian Hafe
Whether it’s a shanked drive, a regrettable restaurant order or a horrifying “reply all” email snafu, the concept of a mulligan is irresistible. We all need one sometimes. Photo by Christian Hafer

Golf, it’s often said, is hard. Even the brightest optimists would admit that losses are taken more than victories, that mistakes are more common than coffee. Perhaps that’s why a certain error-erasing term is so popular: the mulligan. The origin of the term is murky. But its value is never in doubt.

There are at least three explanations, all dubious in some way. The most common theory, supported by the Oxford English Dictionary and the PGA of America, is that the term is derived from David B. Mulligan, a Canadian who lived from 1871 to 1954 and played at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York, in the 1930s. 

Quotes from Mulligan, excerpted on PGA.com, offer support for the term’s etymology. Mulligan describes the aftermath of a lousy shot: “I was so provoked with myself that, on impulse, I stooped over and put down another ball. The other three looked at me with considerable puzzlement, and one of them asked, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m taking a correction shot’… Thinking fast, I told him that I called it a ‘Mulligan.’ They laughed and let me play a second ball.”

If true, this origin story would add yet another layer of misery to Phil Mickelson’s famous collapse at the 2006 U.S. Open. If only he had a second try from the rough of the 18th hole at David Mulligan’s home course.

Some think another Mulligan—John A. “Buddy” Mulligan, a locker room attendant at New Jersey’s Essex Fells Country Club in the 1930s—was the true father of mulligans. The story goes that other players would persuade Buddy to play after his shift, but he would demand extra shots because he wasn’t warmed up. This story spread thanks to one of those players, golf writer Des Sullivan.  

On the Early Sports and Pop Culture History blog, etymologist Peter Reitan points to the uncertainty of both stories, which “have been told and retold for decades, with details garbled and embellished in each retelling, as in a children’s game of ‘telephone.’” A major problem is that the first recorded use of “mulligan” in golf is from 1931 in the Detroit Free Press, describing a pro-am tournament involving New York Yankee Sammy Byrd: “All were waiting to see what Byrd would do on the 290-yard 18th, with a creek in front of the well-elevated green. His first drive barely missed carrying the creek and he was given a ‘mulligan’ just for fun. The second not only was over the creek on the fly but was within a few inches of the elevated green. That’s some poke!” This would put the term in use before both Mulligans claimed to have coined it.

Another theory requires even further leaps, but does have a more plausible timeline. Since at least 1919, “take a mulligan” has been a baseball term for a powerful swing. This was derived from the name of a mythical, Paul Bunyan-esque baseball player named Swat Mulligan. It’s possible the meaning of “taking a powerful swing” morphed into “taking a second swing.” As Reitan notes, the first recorded uses of “mulligan” involve baseball players.

Whatever the exact origin, “mulligan” couldn’t be more useful on and off the course. Whether it’s a shanked drive, a regrettable restaurant order or a horrifying “reply all” email snafu, the concept of a mulligan is irresistible. We all need one sometimes.  

Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeney’s and a professional etym-ologist and comedian. His most recent book is titled Bullshit: A Lexicon.