It was one of those rounds where every bounce goes the wrong way. Where birdie looks turn into bogeys. One of those rounds where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I stood on the 13th tee at Ballyneal Golf Club, staring out at the rolling waves of fescue. Golfers in the group ahead alternately disappeared and reappeared in 15-second intervals as they traversed the wild ridges of this course. Ballyneal is tucked into the sand dunes of northeastern Colorado, a kissing cousin of the famed Sand Hills region of Nebraska. It’s an area author Jim Harrison once described as “without a doubt the most mysterious landscape in the United States. You begin to doubt your sensibilities, and if your car doesn’t have a compass, carry one along for the detours you’ll take to resolve your overwhelming visual curiosity.”
Ballyneal doesn’t quite require a compass, but even veterans of this rolling, austere masterpiece need a good yardage book. And while I had a legendary one at my disposal, I hadn’t yet used it. No surprise, then, that despite hitting eight of nine fairways (a rarity for me), I stood 14-over par through 12 holes. All hopes of breaking 80, my standard definition of a good round, were not only out the window, but on a bus halfway to Zihuatanejo.
Playing as a single on a Wednesday morning in August, I’d zipped through this round of bad breaks and lazy swings. Finally catching up to civilization, though, I had a chance to pause and reassess the situation. That’s when I remembered my friend and his yardage book.
I’d been playing in such a daze that I’d forgotten to consult the treasure in my back pocket.
This was not the standard yardage book anyone can pick up in the pro shop. This book was meticulously hand-drawn by the late Charlie Mulligan, Ballyneal’s first caddie and its official club historian. Mulligan had passed away the previous week at the age of 71, after a 20-month battle with sarcoma, a cancer of the bones and soft tissue. I flew out for the funeral services in nearby Haigler, Nebraska, and believed a 36-hole day at the Tom Doak–designed course that Mulligan loved more than anybody would be a fitting tribute to my friend.
I first saw Charlie Mulligan during my initial visit to Ballyneal, in 2008. The club had opened just two years prior as a private walking-only destination club, and caddies were a big part of the experience. Most caddies were young men and women from nearby Holyoke and other small farming communities in the area. Mulligan stuck out in the crowd in both age and appearance; his tall, thin frame, sunken face and stringy gray hair were in stark contrast to the kids working alongside him. Picture Gandalf with a goatee, thin ponytail and caddie bib.
“Who’s that?” I couldn’t help but ask. But what I really meant was, “Who’s that old guy?”
“That’s Charlie Mulligan,” my host replied.
It wasn’t until I read his obituary that I was 100 percent certain that Charlie Mulligan was his real name. He was like a character out of a golf movie, only if you saw a movie with a free-spirited caddie named Charlie Mulligan, you’d roll your eyes and dismiss it as too clichéd. Mulligan was simply too good to be true.
Who’s that old guy? It’s the same thought that many staff and crew members had when Mulligan would just show up while the course was under construction. Ballyneal’s owner happened upon Mulligan wandering the property in February 2006. When asked what he was doing, Mulligan proclaimed that he was going to be caddying at the club and was studying the course to prepare. Seven months later, he was on the bag for renowned golf-course architect Bill Coore at Doak’s grand-opening Renaissance Cup event.
It would be easy to assume that Mulligan was a lifelong caddie, leading the vagabond lifestyle that often comes with the profession. As usual with him, the real story was much more interesting. Mulligan enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in Vietnam from 1965–66. He then worked for the Department of Defense in Charleston, South Carolina, as a nuclear submarine engineer for 30 years before retiring in 1997 to Haigler, the hometown of his wife, Myrna. In his free time, Mulligan was a practicing artist, taking numerous classes at the College of Charleston and displaying his work at local art shows.
Mulligan became both sage and engineer, bringing his blend of precision and artistic flair to the bag. He continually sketched and took measurements of the course, marking down key distances to hazards and prominent slopes and ridges that define the strategy of most holes. His role evolved into becoming the senior mentor to the younger caddies and the young club’s de facto club historian. He thoroughly researched the origins of the course and the history of the surrounding area while collecting every possible word Doak wrote about Ballyneal. Mulligan would weave this precious information into a round to enhance every player’s experience. Often the club would assign him to the professional golfers, celebrities and golf cognoscenti that rolled through Holyoke to check out the course.
Mulligan tracked all of his loops from 2006 to 2008 in a binder. This included little notes on each player in the group, such as describing a player’s game (“very aggressive player, drew the ball; athletic”) or recording a junky tip from a famous golf architect (“$40, ‘no change’”). Sometimes Mulligan would bestow his golfers with gifts like homemade jams (usually from local plants, like prickly-pear cactus, which I had no idea were edible) or artistic creations like a gold-leafed yucca plant.
For a few members, Mulligan created the aforementioned handmade yardage books, dropping his unmatched knowledge onto spiral-bound, double-sided, laminated pages. When word of Mulligan’s death reached the Ballyneal family, my friend Mike, a former club member, posted some pictures of the book Mulligan created for him in 2010. Mike and I traded stories about Mulligan later that evening, and eventually he insisted on sending me the yardage book to keep. It arrived in my mailbox the day before I was scheduled to leave for the funeral.
Each page of the book has hand-drawn outlines of the hole, with a line dictating the optimal line of play from each main tee box. What I found most valuable were the detailed green diagrams with yardages from the front of the green to key ridges separating the pin locations. At the bottom of each page were handwritten notes on how to best play to various pins. I’m a firm believer that the best courses in the world must be played backward from the green. Mulligan’s yardage book forced that line of thinking.
On the 13th hole, the green is partially obscured by a small dune on the right. Although the fairway is the widest on the course, a far-right pin requires a tee shot down the left side, effectively narrowing the target to a 25-yard-wide strip. I successfully managed to drive my ball down the left edge of the fairway. Again, I consulted Mulligan’s yardage book and determined that the pin was in the “F” position, in between two slopes that form a sort of grass taco shell. Mulligan’s direction here: “F-position pin has a backstop; requires accurate carry.” The book told me the key ridge was 17 paces from the front. I struck my 9-iron with a renewed confidence, hit the ball solidly and watched as it landed just on the right side of the ridge. I approached the green and found my ball just 15 feet from the hole. I missed the birdie putt, but it was a refreshingly easy par.
Mulligan’s assist on the 13th was too little, too late to salvage anything in the morning round, but I made a concerted effort to consult his book on each and every hole in the afternoon. His words of wisdom combined with the simple act of committing to each shot led to a 13-stroke improvement between rounds. My friend would have been proud. And opponents beware: Mulligan’s yardage book is certain to be a permanent fixture in my back pocket during future rounds at Ballyneal.
Charlie Mulligan left an enduring mark on the club that just happened to sprout up 40 miles from his home. The club recognized this, making him a lifetime honorary member this past May. Mulligan was clearly moved by the gesture; he later donated his prized hickory clubs to Ballyneal for members and guests to use. He also put together a binder of clippings from Doak’s writings, organized by hole, along with his handwritten notes.
At the top, he wrote, “Marked up May 18th, 2016. By Charlie Mulligan. Ballyneal Lifetime Honorable Member and Historian.”
Doak and Mulligan corresponded via email occasionally, usually when Mulligan had a clarifying question or strong opinion about a specific hole or feature. More recently, Mulligan sent Doak some photographs for possible use in volume three of Doak’s The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses, but confided that his failing health might prevent him from seeing his work in print. “I told him it meant a lot to me that my courses seemed to attract guys like him,” Doak told me.
Doak and his team at Renaissance Golf Design spent this past summer creating a new short course at Ballyneal, set to open in fall 2017. Doak was the driving influence in naming it: the Mulligan Par 3. There’s also talk at the club of forming a caddie scholarship in Mulligan’s honor.
Established clubs—the Shinnecocks and Winged Foots of the world—have events, trophies and features named after unforgettable characters during their history. Think Strath Bunker at St. Andrews or the Hogan plaque at Merion. Modern classics like Ballyneal are writing their history as they go along. A hundred years from now, the memory of a one-of-a-kind character named Charlie Mulligan (seriously, that’s his real name) will live on. I can think of no higher honor for a fellow golfer.