A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the origin of the golf term "mulligan"?

August 15, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

Golfing in the Montreal area, I heard the term "mulligan" originated in a local club where a member of that name would invariably hit a second ball off the tee when he misdirected his first shot. I heard the story convincingly repeated on other occasions crediting other golf clubs. "Too close to home," I say--this must be local lore. Where exactly did the term really originate?

The bottom line is that we don't know. Some mysteries may never be solved.

The term "mulligan" in golf is a second shot allowed by an opponent and not counted on the score, when the first shot was hideously muffed (or missed altogether). Usually it happens on the drive, although not always. Needless to say, ignoring the first stroke happens only in "friendly" golf, not in professional or "serious" golf. Tiger Woods is not given mulligans when he plays tournaments.

Just as an aside, note that Mulligan is also a general "nickname" or stereotype for an Irishman, an underworld term for policeman (obviously dating back to when so many police were Irish), and a type of stew. Presumably all these relate to the surname Mulligan, of Irish origin.

The term mulligan in golf dates from the 1940s, and the origin is uncertain. By 1949, it had made its way into P. Cummings' Dictionary of Sports, so must have been fairly common before that.

One theory about the origin cites a certain individual named Mulligan who blew so many drives that the club allowed him blah blah blah. Those are presumably the type of origin stories that you heard a particular golf club claim for their own.

Another origin theory ties to the period when Irish-Americans were joining fancy country clubs and were derided as incompetent golfers. That would make the term basically an ethnic slur that caught on, like "Indian summer" or "Dutch treat."

A more interesting origin story is that American family-type saloons kept a bottle called a Mulligan, a concoction of pepper and spices that would add a little zing to the beer. The effect was a shock to the system, like the humiliating blow of being given an extra swing at the ball. (OK, far-fetched, but interesting.)

So, we're where we started, with the exact origin unknown. Sorry that we can't help you debunk any particular golf club's claim to fame--although you can exclude any who claim the term was invented after 1949.

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