What is a Golf Mulligan? (3 Origin Stories)

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The glossary of terms in golf is pretty expansive, with some terms being essential to the game and others being fairly uncommon. The golf mulligan lies somewhere in between, as they’re not used in official games but can be used in casual rounds.

What is a golf mulligan? A mulligan is a term used to describe a retake of a tee shot in golf. It is not used in pro golf or in official amateur events. But it can be allowed in casual games with a collective agreement. A player who uses a mulligan must add the retake shot to his score.

In this article, you’ll learn the rules of mulligans in golf and will find out about reverse mulligans as well.

By the end of this post, you’ll know all you need to know about these golf shot terms driver retakes, including why they are called what they are called.

Why Is It Called A Mulligan?

Why Is It Called A Mulligan

A “Mulligan” in golf got its name from John A. Mulligan, also called Buddy Mulligan. He was a locker room attendant at the Essex Fells Country Club in the 1930s. Because he would retake shots, often approach and tee shots, retakes in golf became synonymous with his name.

The fact that a locker room attendant can get immortalized in golf history speaks to the power of the sport. Mulligan played with influential people, and his unique approach to the game built him a long-lasting, albeit unflattering, legacy.

If you don’t want to be associated with retakes, then you should use Mulligans sparingly and can even opt for reverse Mulligans.

But read on if you’re the type who doesn’t like to settle for a single origin story…

History of The Term Mulligan in Golf

History of The Term Mulligan in Golf

The internet is littered with a number of different theories about how the term mulligan was coined. However, most of them focus on two central characters named Mulligan.

No one knows for sure which of these stories is true, but they’ve become so popular and can’t be far from the truth.

We’ll try to summarize the different stories, starting with the story of David Bernard Mulligan, a Canadian amateur golfer, and hotelier whom many people believe to have popularized the term in the early 1920s.

The USGA records 3 versions of David Bernard Mulligan’s story…

Origin Story #1 – 3

The USGA records three versions of David Bernard Mulligan's story

One day, while Mulligan was playing recreational golf, he hit a poor drive off the first tee. In a bid to correct his mistake, he simply teed again and hit another ball. He turned and told his playing partners, who were visibly amused, that his second shot was a “correction shot.”

This correction shot soon became popular and was renamed a golf mulligan.

This theory focused on the fact that Mulligan had a bumpy ride to a Montreal course. The drive was so rough that it left Mulligan shaken even when he made his first tee. Thus, his playing partners allowed him to take a second shot.

The third story finds a way to blend the first two.

It focuses on how Mulligan showed up late on the course one day and was too in a rush to take the first shot. The rush meant that he needed to hit another shot.

Thus, the birth of the term mulligan in golf.

Mulligan himself seemed to confirm these stories in a 1952 interview with Don Mackintosh. 

“One day, while I was playing with three of my friends – I hit an almost accurate ball off the first tee that was long enough but not as straight as I would have wanted. I got so provoked with myself that I put another ball down on impulse. The other three players looked at me with bewilderment, and one asked what I was doing. Without thinking, I quickly replied that I was taking a correction shot which I called a mulligan. From then, people began to seek an extra free shot on their first tee, and it soon became an unwritten rule in golf.”

– David Bernard Mulligan

Origin Story #4

Second Mulligan

Another famous story making the rounds is that of John A. “Buddy” Mulligan, who served as a locker room attendant at Essex Fells Country Club in New Jersey in the early 1930s.

One day, some players persuaded Mulligan to join their game. Since he’s been working all day, Mulligan was mentally prepared to play, and the price was a poor opening tee shot.

Legends have it that he asked his playing partners to give him a do-over since they had been practicing all morning and he hadn’t. They agreed, and the story spread so quickly that other members adopted it for their games.

How Many Strokes Are In A Mulligan?

How Many Strokes Are In A Mulligan

A mulligan is a single-stroke retake usually reserved for bad tee shots and poor approaches. You can get several mulligans in a game, but each Mulligan has one shot.

You cannot get more than one Mulligan per hole and will rarely be allowed to have more than two in one round.

You should not confuse mulligans with a handicap, even though both are informal accommodations for poor play. While using your handicap allowance is straightforward, using mulligans isn’t.

Understanding the rules of a Mulligan will help you use yours more effectively.

9 Mulligan Rules In Golf

Mulligan Rules In Golf

Because mulligans are used in informal games, they aren’t governed by immutable laws. You can override almost every “rule” of a mulligan with the agreement of your peers. This highlights the significance of mutual agreement in mulligans, which is also their first rule.

1. Mulligans Are Agreed Upon Before The Game

You cannot claim a mulligan during the back nine without having agreed upon their validity before the game.

The primary reason for the pre-game agreement is that both players should be able to claim a mulligan at any point.

If your opponent hasn’t claimed a mulligan because he was under the impression that there were no retakes, claiming one later on, is unfair.

2. You May Not Get A Mulligan Without Your Opponent’s Agreement

Since a mulligan is an accommodation and not a right, it cannot be claimed against an opponent’s will. But if a group decides to use mulligans in a round, then no one can retrospectively disallow them.

3. You Can Use Mulligans On Tee Shots (Drives) Only

Even if your opponent has agreed to have one or two Mulligans in a round, you cannot retake shots when you’re close to a hole.

Sure, your opponent can accept retakes on short-distance putts, but that would be outside the definition of a mulligan.

4. You Can Use Mulligans On The Fairway If Allowed

You can use a Mulligan off tees only, but in some cases, taking them from the fairway is allowed. If a fairway mulligan is valid for one player, then it is valid for all players.

For fairness’ sake, it is better to talk this out before a game.

5. You Might Balance A Mulligan By Giving Equal Allowance To Your Opponent

One way to make a mulligan fair is to give everyone an equal retake allowance. Not everyone has to use theirs to make the game fair.

Just the fact that everyone has the option makes using the option fair for any player in the group.

6. You Might Balance A Mulligan By Accepting A Reverse Mulligan

If you think that one person using a mulligan isn’t fair when others do not need retakes, you can agree to the reverse mulligan rule.

According to this provision, any player who uses a mulligan must use a reverse mulligan, a forced retake of a good shot.

7. You Have To Offset A Mulligan With An Added Score

You can retake a bad shot, but you have to add the extra shot to your score. Mulligan is meant to offset poor trajectory and consequent score stack.

So if you overshoot a ball and might have to take seven extra shots to bring it to the putting area, you can simply use a mulligan and retake the shot. 

You won’t need as many shots after that to get closer to the hole. But you will need to add the additional shot to your score.

8. There Shall Be No More Than One Mulligan Per Hole

By definition, you cannot have two Mulligans for a single hole.

A mulligan is a very specific type of retake, which is limited to long-distance shots from the furthest practical point from the upcoming hole.

9. You Should Use No More Than Two Mulligans Per Round

This is the least enforceable and most overwritten rule in informal games. Still, the consensus seems to be that you can use one Mulligan in the front nine and one in the back nine with the agreement of your peers.

If you want more Mulligans in a game, you need to mention the exact number and get everyone’s approval before you begin the round.

Can You Use A Mulligan When Putting?

Can You Use A Mulligan When Putting

Your group might agree to accept retakes for putts, but those retakes cannot be called Mulligans. You cannot use a mulligan when putting because mulligans are limited to tee shots.

Retakes from the fairway can also be squeezed into the definition of a Mulligan, but you cannot fit putting retakes under its umbrella.

What Is A Reverse Mulligan In Golf?

What Is A Reverse Mulligan In Golf

A reverse mulligan in golf is a special permission given to a golfer to demand a retake of a good long-distance shot. It can make a round more exciting and can even out the advantage one might have because of a mulligan.

Typically, a reverse mulligan has the same rules as a mulligan but comes with a shift in consent. If a group agrees that a mulligan can be used for tee shots only, then a reverse mulligan cannot be called from the fairway.

If there are two mulligans in a round, then there can be two reverse mulligans as well. Just like mulligans, reverse mulligans are subject to mutual agreement. And with mutual agreement, their rules can be overwritten as well.

In some games, there are no mulligans, but reverse mulligans are still allowed. As mentioned earlier, forced retakes can be used to make a game fair or to make it more exciting. The reverse Mulligan is called a Gilligan in games where the only retakes are forced ones.

Do You Get A Gilligan For Every Mulligan?

Do You Get A Gilligan For Every Mulligan

While you can arrange to make Gilligans proportional to mulligans in a round, it isn’t necessary.

The number of Gilligans and Mulligans is decided before the round and is up to the discretion of the players. As long as these retakes are mutually agreed upon, they can be invoked during a round.

In a typical round, you get to use a reverse mulligan (or Gilligan) to force your opponent to retake a good shot only if they have used a mulligan to retake a bad shot.

But if your group agrees that every player can be forced to retake two driver shots during a round, it doesn’t matter whether there is any mulligan allowance in the game.

A reverse mulligan is similar to a reverse handicap in that it is the antithesis of the standard concept but doesn’t need to rely on the standard for its own existence.

You can have a round of golf with just the reverse handicap applied without using the regular handicap system.

Similarly, you can have a round of golf with reverse Mulligans only, with no player given any Mulligans.

Mulligan vs. Handicap: Similarities And Differences

Mulligan vs. Handicap Similarities And Differences

The similarities between mulligans and handicaps do not end with the fact that both concepts have their reversals. Still, there are significant differences between both allowances, which is why they should not be confused with each other.

Ways in which a mulligan is similar to a golf handicap:

  • Both are limited to amateur games – Mulligans as well as the handicap system are not used in professional golf. 
  • Both can reduce your score – A mulligan, when used properly, can lower your score. A handicap literally reduces it. 
  • Both rely on mutual agreement – You cannot use a mulligan or your handicap without the consent of your peers. If your group wants to play with no handicaps and no mulligans, you cannot force them.

Ways in which a mulligan is different from a handicap:

  • They are used differently – A mulligan allows you to retake a shot, reversing all the consequences of a bad shot. A handicap allows you to reduce your score via deduction from your overall score. 
  • Handicap is integral to amateur golf – Handicap is not used in professional golf but is an important part of casual golf. That’s why it is allowed in most amateur tournaments and official events. Mulligans are not accepted in official amateur events. 
  • There is a penalty for a mulligan – When you use a mulligan, you have to add one to your score. With the handicap system, there is no such penalty. 
  • They’re not used with the same frequency – There is a handicap allowance for every hole, but mulligans are nine times less frequent than handicap deductions.

Final Thoughts on Golf Mulligans

Final Thoughts

A mulligan in golf is the name given to discretionary retakes of tee shots. The term comes from a golf club locker attendant, John A. “Buddy” Mulligan, who was famous for retaking driver shots.

The Mulligan has no standing in official events in professional as well as amateur golf.