Oct 24

The Mulligan, and How Many Golf Balls

Where Did the Mulligan Come From, and How Many Golf Balls Do We Carry per Round?

I had not thought of these questions for a very long time, until I read two informative articles on the PGA site. The first was penned by Bob Denney for PGA of America on the origins of the mulligan. It’s an important question, since the idea of a mulligan works so well in so many professions, except for surgery, mountain climbing, and a few others. Denny believes that the term entered the golfing lexicon between the 1920s and ’30s, and might come down to two contenders. Canadian amateur David Bernard Mulligan is the first. He belonged to Winged Foot and other prestigious clubs, and drove his own unchanging foursome to the course on a regular basis. They watched as he hit a second drive on the first tee, and asked what it was called – he naturally answered a “mulligan.” He claimed that driving the rough roads to the course left his hands numb for a while, so it was only fair. The second is John A. Mulligan from Essex Fells, New Jersey, a locker room attendant. When he went out, he claimed a mulligan because his partners had already practiced. We who had junior memberships at the local club would have understood that. We carried on a mobile relationship with the mulligan. It went as far as we would allow it, until for some, it became a driving range for each shot. The time I tried that, I put eight balls in the lake, and only succeeded with the ninth because it didn’t even reach the lake.

I understand the anticipation of the first tee. The mind envisions how it should go. It doesn’t do that about most of the other shots of the round. In our junior membership minds, we should have been able to stay on the first tee all day until we got the shot of our dreams. After all, that’s why we got up that morning. When it doesn’t work, the bad shot is a double disappointment, worse than the single bad shot. I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble, no matter what the mind says. Besides, we still have to go home and say “I shot such and such a score,” except for three water balls, two out-of-bounds, and of course, a mulligan.

How many golf balls we carry with us is a close relative of the mulligan question. The pros seem quite ritualistic about the whole thing. For Sawgrass, many take 11, figuring that if you dunk more than 11 balls, you shouldn’t be there, and you’re not making the cut anyway. Carry Smits of the Florida-Times Union explains it very well, Outside of Sawgrass, pros carry fewer than 11 as an almost routine badge of honor. Some are given to kids along the way. One pro putted out for bogey, and threw the ball into the lake, only to discover he didn’t have anymore for the next hole.  It is legal to send a gofer to the pro shop to get replacements, but they have to be the same brand and type – and you’ll probably be assessed a two-stroke penalty for delay of play. One ran out of a new ball not yet in the pro shops. You can borrow a ball from a partner or competitor, if they are willing. That’s embarrassing even in the culture of duffers. I hated that one a lot.

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Tiger Woods putted in the hotel before the final round of the 2000 U.S. Open, and forgot to put the balls back into the bag. He only had two for the round, and hooked the first one into the Pacific. Such was Tiger’s gift, however, that he won the tournament by 15 strokes. John Daly hit a bucket’s worth on the same hole and walked away from the tournament.

In my day, a golf bag was chosen, after its good looks, for a large carrying capacity. I divided mine into three pouches. First came the shiny, waxy new driving balls for those wide open country fairways. Next came the cornfield balls for dangerous right edge rough. Then came the water balls, that looked as though I had made them in shop class the day before. On tight forest courses, I held the world record for how many I could lose in 18 holes, and I still think that some ball collector got rich because of me.
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In the end, I believe, the mulligan is more deflating than anything else, even if it goes well. Your round is diminished regardless. As for golf balls, I’d bring a pack mule on some courses I’ve played. Thanks to Denny and Smits, however, I now have a more academic perspective on how the whole thing operates on the pro level.

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