What Is the Origin of the Word 'Mulligan' in Golf?

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How did the word "mulligan" acquire its golf meaning, and when and where did it originate? The truth is, nobody is quite sure. The origins of "mulligan" as a golf term are, as the Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms put it, "obscure."

There are multiple theories, the most plausible of which involve golfers named Mulligan. What we can say for sure is that mulligan's golf use, relative to many golf words, is fairly new. The term was in use on golf courses by at least the 1940s.

A mulligan in golf is a do-over—a shot that the golfer replays. Mulligans are never allowed under the rules, but informally many golfers allow them (at least on the first tee).

Let's take a look at some of those origin stories for "mulligan." Just keep in mind that it's possible that none of them are true!

Theory: 'Mulligan' Is Named After a Golfer

Mulligan probably originated when the golf do-over was christened mulligan after the name of a golfer who kept replaying shots. That's the most likely explanation, and according to Occam's Razor the simplest explanation is more likely to be the true one. But there are multiple stories about different golfers who are the Mr. Mulligans in this theory. In some cases, there are even different origin stories told about the same Mr. Mulligan.

The USGA Museum mentions a fellow by the name of David Mulligan who frequented St. Lambert Country Club in Montreal, Quebec, Canada during the 1920s. Mulligan let it rip off the tee one day, wasn't happy with the results, re-teed, and hit again. According to the story, he called it a "correction shot," but his golfing buddies thought a better name was needed and dubbed it a "mulligan."

Perhaps because Mr. Mulligan was a prominent local businessman, the term, according to the story, caught on among his peers and then spread from there. He brought the term to the United States when he moved to New York and joined Winged Foot. But that's only if you believe this version, which, alas, does not have any hard evidence to support it. (The USGA Web Site actually provides two other alternate versions of the David Mulligan story—the origins of "mulligan" are so mysterious that the same story winds up with three different versions.)

Another story cited by the USGA is of a John "Buddy" Mulligan, known for replaying poor shots at Essex Fells Country Clubs in N.J. in the 1930s. As with David Mulligan in Canada, Buddy Mulligan's golf partners named the do-over shot after him.

Theory: The Ethnic Slur

Another interesting theory is related by the Web site, StraightDope.com. "Mulligan" is a common Irish name, and the Northeastern United States was heavily Irish in the early part of the 20th Century. StraightDope.com pointed to those times in sharing this theory:

"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.' "

Theory: Liquor and Saloons

The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins offers another explanation. It postulates the word derives from saloons that, back in the day, would place a free bottle of booze on the bar for customers to dip into. That free bottle was called, according to the book, a Mulligan. The term was adapted to the golf course to denote a "freebie" (a free, replay stroke) to be used by golfers.

Along the same lines, there's a second story told about the term originating in bars. A "mulligan," this theory goes, was a mixture of spices kept on hand in a tavern that customers could add to their beers for an extra kick—again, a bar freebie.