Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino, Woods – these names evoke images of the best golf shots and most memorable moments in golf history.
Mulligan – a name that evokes images of the worst golf shots and most forgettable moments in every golfer’s personal history.
Everyone knows Jack, Arnie, Lee and Tiger, but few people know Dave or “Buddy,” the two Mulligan men generally associated with the origins of golf’s “mulligan.”
In golf, a “mulligan” is a do-over, a second shot made without a penalty in hopes that it will be better than the first. Merriam Webster defines it as a “free shot sometimes given a golfer in informal play when the previous shot was poorly played,” [i] although a pessimist might define it as “the right to hit a second shot worse than your first.” [ii]
Traditionally, taking a “mulligan” is limited to a tee-shot, and sometimes just the first tee of the round, although some players (like me) may take one at any time. The word has also long since passed into general usage, being used to describe any second attempt in any sport, or in life, when a first attempt failed.
The origin of the “mulligan” is considered unknown, although there are two leading candidates for the dubious honor of having coined the expression.
The most widely accepted story is that Dave Mulligan invented the “mulligan” at Winged Foot Golf Club in suburban New York City in the 1930s or at the Country Club of Montreal in the 1920s. He was frazzled, they say, after a bumpy ride over a long, rickety bridge, so he needed special consideration – they gave him a second shot – a “mulligan.”
|Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario), December 27, 1954, page 1.|
A lesser theory is that “Buddy” Mulligan coined the expression at Essex Fells Country Club in New Jersey in the mid-1930s. He was regularly called away from his duties as a locker room attendant to fill out a foursome with some club members, they say, but since he had been working while they were practicing, he needed special consideration – they gave him a second shot – a “mulligan.”
|Echoes-Sentinel (Warren Township, New Jersey), July 10, 1975, page 18.|
Dave and “Buddy’s” respective, purported roles in the origin of “mulligan” are far from certain. Their stories have been told and retold for decades, with details garbled and embellished in each retelling, as in a children’s game of “telephone.”
Elements of both stories are true. Dave Mulligan did play golf at Winged Foot in the 1930s and Montreal in the 1920s, where he drove across the mile-long Victoria Bridge to get to the golf course. “Buddy” Mulligan worked as a locker room attendant in the 1930s, and a well respected golf writer who played with him at Essex Fells in the “mid-1930s” substantiated his story.
But elements of both stories are also problematic; chiefly the timeline. Recently discovered, early examples of “mulligan” in pushed the earliest known date of use back to October 1931, but Dave Mulligan did not play with his regular foursome at Winged Foot until 1932 or later, and “Buddy” Mulligan said that he coined the expression in the “mid-1930s,” too late for his claim to be true.
Dave Mulligan could have coined the expression in Montreal in the 1920s, I suppose, but that story first appeared on the back of a menu at a golf-themed restaurant in Hollywood Florida in 1972. Their pancakes are great, I’m sure, but menu covers are not the most reliable source (the one exception to the rule being the Chinese zodiac, which is usually spot-on). Although two witnesses later came forward to corroborate some aspects of the Montreal story, they disagreed with one another on significant details, and contradicted Dave Mulligan’s own version of events.
In addition, an article about Winged Foot’s “First Annual Mulligan Tournament,” written in 1941 when Dave Mulligan was still an active member, credits Mulligan with creating the “mulligan tournament,” but not with inventing or coining the “mulligan” itself, which the article expressly states was of unknown origin.
The two earliest examples of “mulligan” in print may also support a novel theory of the origin of “mulligan,” based on an earlier sense of “mulligan” meaning to take a hard swing at a ball. I have speculated about the theory in the past, but without specific evidence of to connect the earlier sense with the later golfing sense. The newly discovered, early examples, however, arguably make the connection.
In the 1910s, the New York Evening World occasionally heralded the exploits of “Swat Mulligan”[iii], a fictional professional baseball player with mythical strength – a kind of Paul Bunyan for baseball; a Mighty Casey who never struck out.
|Swat Mulligan’s Bat: The Evening World (New York), August 15, 1908, page 4.|
They even sold “Swat Mulligan” dolls:
|Tacoma Times (Washington), July 7, 1911, page 6.|
He was so well known that his name was used idiomatically to describe big hitters in baseball, golf and cricket. In the early 1920s, for example, Babe Ruth was described as a “Swat Mulligan” of the diamond and the links:
Famous “Babe” has natural form for walloping home runs, but on links he’s developed special style that drives the little ball over 300 yards – Yankees star confident of flashing new Swat Mulligan stuff this year in both baseball and golf.
The Evening World (New York), March 13, 1920, page 8.
As early as 1919, a cricketer, using language very similar to the golfing sense, might “take a ‘mulligan’ at” the ball. In context, it appears that this early “mulligan” referred to taking a big swing at the ball – the kind of swing “Swat Mulligan” might take:
If it is a bad ball, “off the wicket,” he may take a “mulligan” at it and knock it over the fence, “out of bounds” they call it.
The Colorado Springs Gazette, April 19, 1919, page 12.
This is the only example of “mulligan” in this form that I or anyone else has found. But there are numerous references using the full name, “Swat Mulligan,” to describe a big hitter in baseball or golf.
Heinie Zimmerman was the New York Yankee’s leading “Swat Mulligan” in 1917:
Leading the Polo Ground Swat Mulligans is Heinie Zimmerman, with an average of .310.
The World (New York), July 10, 1917, page 10.
Dave Herron was a “Swat Mulligan of the links” in Philadelphia in 1919:
[Woody Platt], a newcomer to tournament golf, failed to get his strokes working in good shape against the long hitting Herron, who is a real Swat Mulligan of the links.
The Evening World (New York), August 22, 1919, page 2.
The great Walter Hagen was also considered a “Swat Mulligan of the links”:
|The Evening World (New York), June 13, 1919, page 22.|
In a baseball game between the Elk Clubs of the Bronx and Staten Island in 1922, a “Swat Mulligan Hit” “sailed over” an elevated train – but was called foul:
The Evening World (New York), June 5, 1922.
It seems plausible that this full-swing sense of “Swat Mulligan” or “take a mulligan” could have morphed into the golf sense of an extra shot off the tee, where a proverbial “Swat Mulligan” might take a full, strong swing if given a second chance.
I speculated about such a connection in an earlier post (see Swat Mulligan, the Sultan of Swat and the Taliban (June 23, 2016)):
It is possible, I suppose, that this full-swing sense of “Mulligan” is a precursor to the second-chance sense of “Mulligan.” Did “Mulligan” originate from taking a second tee-shot; a full swing?
. . . But it may be just a “red herring”; any similarity being just a coincidence. I do not know and have not found any direct evidence of a connection.
With an assist from Garson O’Toole (purveyor of QuoteInvestigator.com and author of Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations), I located what is now the earliest known example of a golf “mulligan” in print, dated October 1931.
Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the two earliest known examples of “mulligan” in print relate to a professional baseball player who was arguably the best golfer to ever play major league baseball. It was not Babe Ruth, but “Babe Ruth’s Legs” – Sammy Byrd, a reserve New York Yankee outfielder and frequent substitute for “the Sultan of Swat” late in his career.
|The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), August 13, 1933, page 10.|
After retiring from baseball, Byrd went on to win six PGA tournaments in the 1940s, finish in the top-10 at the Masters twice, and nearly win the 1945 PGA championship (losing to Byron Nelson 4 & 3 in match play). He holds the dubious distinction of achieving highest score ever on the 2d hole at the Masters – 10 [iv] (no “mulligan” allowed), but is also the only person ever to appear in both a World Series game (a bottom-of-the-ninth defensive substitution for Ruth in game one of the 1932 World Series) and The Masters.
But in 1931, he was just a baseball player proving that he had what it took to play with the big-boys in a pro-am match-play tournament.
In October 1931, New York Yankees’ reserve outfielder, Sammy Byrd, teamed up with professional golfer Tommy Armour,[v] (The Silver Scot) in a best-ball, pro-am tournament at Rammler Golf Club in Stirling Heights, Michigan. The pair came in second place with a best-ball score of 68. Byrd, one of the amateurs, carded the individual low score with a 71. He shared top honors with two of the professionals; his partner, who was the reigning British Open champion and winner of two other majors, and Al Wastrous, who never won a major but who nearly defeated the legendary Bobby Jones in the 1926 British Open; not bad company.
|Image from Wikipedia.|
Byrd’s distance off the tee was also impressive. He was one of only a few players on the day to reach the green on the 290-yard 14th hole. He also wowed the crowd coming home on the 290-yard 18th hole by clearing a creek and rolling his ball up to within inches of an elevated green. Great shot, maybe, but it wouldn’t count – it was his second try – and the first known appearance of “mulligan” in print:
All were waiting to see what Byrd would do on the 290-yard 18th, with a creek in front of the well-elevated green. His first drive barely missed carrying the creek and he was given a “mulligan” just for fun. The second not only was over the creek on the fly but was within a few inches of the elevated green. That’s some poke!
Detroit Free Press, October 13, 1931, page 16.
This big hit by a professional baseball player is consistent with earlier uses of “Mulligan”, as in “Swat Mulligan,” but does not unambiguously answer the question. The writer did not bother to explain the word here, as though the word was already in current use, at least in golf circles. The same paper did, however, take a journalistic “mulligan” a few months later, explaining the word while recounting the same event – the second known example of a golf “mulligan” in print:
Mention of Byrd always brings to our mind a drive he made on the 290-yard eighteenth at Rammler late last season. It was one of the most prodigious wallops we ever saw. . . .
Playing in a four-ball match, which included Tommy Armour and Clarence Gamber, the Yankee outfielder narrowly missed carrying the creek with his drive, the ball crashing against the bank on the far side. He was given a “mulligan,” or another chance. This time he not only drove over the creek, but to within a few inches of the front edge of the green. It was all carry, a wallop of close to 290 yards. Try that one on your matched set.
Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1932, page 13. [vi]
It is not clear how the word came to the sportswriter who wrote the article. Perhaps someone told Byrd to swing away, invoking “Mulligan” in the “Swat Mulligan” sense of the word, which the reporter misunderstood as a term for a second chance, thereby unintentionally coining a new golf expression. It is also possible that the term was already known in golf from some other source, or even from “Swat Mulligan” by some other means at some other time, and that this merely happened to be the moment it finally found its way into print. Perhaps the expression, to “take a ‘mulligan’ at” the ball, used in cricket in 1919, had also long persisted in baseball, eventually evolving into the “mulligan” as a second big swing from the tee.
It is also compelling, though not conclusive, that the four earliest known examples of a golf “mulligan” print come from the Detroit Free Press. The Free Press invoked the word twice in 1933 when reporting A. E. Dixon’s “mulligan ace” (a hole-in-one from a second tee-shot); once when he made it[vii] and again months later in a recap of the season.[viii] Does this suggest local provenance? or merely that the writer picked up the word somewhere and by happenstance was the first to put it in print? It is not clear.
The word reached a national audience in a pair of wire stories in 1936 and 1937. During a Presidential stay at the Miami-Biltmore in 1936, Associated Press syndicated columnist, Thomas “Pap” Paproski, noted the golfing habits of Franklin Roosevelt’s appointments secretary, Marvin McIntyre:
Another McIntyre-ism is the use of the “mulligan” – links-ology for a second shot employed after a previously dubbed shot. Most McIntyre “mulligans” are worse dubbed than the initial shot, however – which seems to serve as a psychological encouragement to the presidential attaché.[ix]
In 1937, United Press syndicated columnist Henry McLemore discussed a round of golf he played with professional tennis players Elsworth Vines and George Lott:
Lott had a 41 going out, and bettered this by one shot coming home. This was a shade too good for me, even tho they allowed me to tee up in the rough and gave me a “mulligan” off these tees, a “mulligan” being the right to hit a second shot worse than your first.[x]
In 1938, McLemore used the expression again in a tongue-in-cheek proposal for a rule-change in baseball that might benefit the long-suffering Phillies:
Phillies: the Phillies would be started off with 20 games on the winning side of the ledger and given one “Mulligan” a week. A “Mulligan” is a golfing handicap which allows a player to re-play any one tee shot he chooses to. The Phillies’ baseball “Mulligan” would give them the right to re-play any one inning of a game.[xi]
“Mulligan” does not seem to have become widely known, used or understood outside of golfing circles until President Eisenhower famously took full advantage of his Executive “Mulligan” Privilege:
When It’s Not a Stew
[(For the origins of Mulligan Stew, see my piece on the History and Etymology of Mulligan Stew)]
Use of the word “mulligan” in news dispatches from Gettysburg may prove confusing to students of public affairs who are not versed in the intricate vocabulary of golf.
For their information and as a contribution to public understanding, mulligan, spelled with a small “m,” is not in this case the name of a stew. Neither is it the name of a hero in the war against the Black and Tans.
Mulligan is the term used to designate a second shot off the first tee when the player doesn’t like the looks of the first one.
Telegraphic reports from Gettysburg, heralding President Eisenhower’s achievement of a broken 80, reported he had taken two mulligans, an obvious misinterpretation since only one extra shot is implicit in the term. Some golf courses, in fact, frown on even that one and some forbid it with signs on the first tee as follows: “No mulligans.”
The Pittsburgh Press, July 10, 1958, page 16.
|President Eisenhower’s relaxed approach to golf (Rhode Island, 1957).[xii]|
Evolving Origin Stories
David B. Mulligan
|Chicago Daily Tribune, December 28, 1954, page 14.|
When he died in 1954, David B. Mulligan was remembered as the “dean of hotel men and veteran golfer credited with originating the extra tee shot term of ‘taking a Mulligan.” But he was much more. And inventing the “mulligan” (if he was the one) was not his greatest achievement, much his greatest achievement in sports.
|The Journal News (White Plains, New York), June 11, 2006, U. S. Open Special Section, page65.|
David Mulligan was born in Pembroke, Ontario in about 1871. He reportedly finished high school at age 14 and passed the bar at age 17, at the time the youngest person ever admitted to the bar in Canada. As a young man, “he achieved considerable fame as an athlete in the Upper Ottawa Leagues, playing lacrosse, hockey and other sports with equal brilliancy.”[xiii]
But his talents and his interests lay elsewhere. He embarked on a career in hotel management, gaining “rich experience as room clerk in the Lexington and Chicago Beach Hotels of Chicago, and also in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.”[xiv] He “graduated from the Waldorf-Astoria”[xv] into management positions with hotels in the United States and Canada, before returning to Ottawa in about 1904 to run the Russell Hotel with his brother George.
In Ottawa, Mulligan also found time to devote to his passion for sports, working in an executive capacity for Ottawa’s football, lacrosse and hockey teams. Under his guidance, the Ottawa Capitals (lacrosse) and the Ottawa Senators (hockey) won world championships; the Capitals won the Minto Cup in 1906 and the Senators won the Stanley Cup in 1911. The sports management gene must have run strong in his family. Eight decades later his nephew, M. Donald Grant, was the General Manager of the “Miracle Mets” who won the World’s Series in 1969.
David Mulligan left Ottawa in 1911 to assume management of the Breslin Hotel in New York City, and years later became the superintendent of hotels for the Canadian National Hotels chain. In 1924 took control of the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, and i 1926 the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, running both hotels concurrently while commuting between cities for several years.
Mulligan left the Waldorf-Astoria to manage the Victoria Hotel in New York City in the late-1920s. He stayed there for several years before moving to the Biltmore Hotel chain in 1932, where he spent the rest of his career, first as resident manager of the New York-Biltmore and executive manager of the entire chain, and later as chairman of the board of the Biltmore’s parent company, Realty Hotels.
By his own account, he invented and coined the “mulligan” at Winged Foot Golf Club during this period of time. He first made the claim in an interview in 1952, but he may have overstated his role. An article in 1941 gave him credit for organizing a “mulligan tournament,” but not for coining the expression.
The earliest known account giving David Mulligan credit for coining “mulligan” is an interview published in 1952, two years after he suffered a stroke[xvi] and two years before he died at the age of 83 “after a long illness.” [xvii] I have seen three second-hand accounts of the interview, published in 1952, 1954 and 1985, but have not tracked down a copy of the original. But a trail of breadcrumbs leads me straight to Don Mackintosh of the Sudbury Star (Sudbury, Ontario) as the source of the interview.
In 1952, a newspaper in Louisville published an account of the interview, citing an article from Golf Digest’s June 1952 issue.[xviii] A nearly verbatim account of the same events appeared in an Ottawa newspaper shortly after his death in 1954.[xix] The interview resurfaced three decades later in the July 1985 issue of the USGA’s Golf Journal. George Eberl (author of Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled - 1992) reported that he found the interview in an undated “yellowed newspaper column” which had been sent to the USGA by one of David B. Mulligan’s first cousins, once removed. The clipping did reveal the date or publication it was cut from, but it did list the writer as “Don Mackintosh.”
A man named Don Mackintosh was a sportswriter for the Sudbury Star in 1952. [xx] Since Mulligan was from Pembroke, Ontario, and Mulligan’s brother lived in Sudbury, Ontario, and all three later-published versions of the interview were nearly identical, all signs suggest point to Don Mackintosh of the Sudbury Star as the author of the “yellowed newspaper column” quoted in the Golf Journal in 1985. Mackintosh’s original article, presumably from the Sudbury Star, was likely the original source for the versions published in Louisville (via Golf Digest) in 1952 and Ottawa in 1954.
Mulligan’s own account of the events is simple and straightforward, unlike the later versions of the story:
According to Mulligan, it happened like this: “One day while playing in my usual foursome, I hit a ball off the first tee that was long enough but not straight. I was so provoked with myself that on impulse I stooped over and put another ball down. The other three looked at me with considerable puzzlement and one of them asked, “What are you doing?”
“’I’m taking a correction shot,’ I replied. ‘What do you call that?’ the partner inquired. Thinking fast, I told him that I called it a ‘mulligan’ . . . After that it became kind of an unwritten rule in our foursome that you could take an extra free shot on the first tee if you weren’t satisfied with the original. Naturally, this always was referred to as ‘taking a mulligan.’”
The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), May 25, 1952, page 34 (citing Golf Digest (June 1952)).
The June 1985 article in Golf Digest contained a few extra details omitted from the apparently paraphrased versions published in Louisville in 1952 and Ottawa in 1954. Given all of the other similarities among the various published versions of the interview, the details appear to be original to the source article, and not a later embellishment. Instead of referring to “my usual foursome,” as reported in 1952, it refers to “this group,” and lists the names of the members in the foursome.
The names of the other members of the foursome suggest that the events took place at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York after November 1931, later than what we now know to be the earliest known examples of “mulligan” in print:
“For years I played golf with the same foursome (sic) every weekend. My partner was always L. G. Spindler, and our opponents were John Saxauer and Milt Kayler. One day, while playing with this group, I hit a ball off the first tee that was long enough, but not straight. I was so provoked with myself that, on impulse, I stooped over and put down another ball.
USGA Golf Journal, July 1985, page 18.
Milt Kaylor (Emmet “Milt” Kaylor) was a car salesman who lived in Mamaroneck, New York, the same village where Winged Foot is located.[xxi]
L. G. Spindler (Lorenz Gregory Spindler) was a well-heeled flour broker from New York City. He was an active and successful amateur golfer in the New York area for several decades, leaving a long paper trail of reports of his matches. The earliest connection I could find between Spindler and Winged Foot is a best-ball tournament he played there in August 26, 1932.[xxii] In November 1931, he was still reportedly connected with Westchester Country Club,[xxiii] where he had played since at least the late-1920s.[xxiv] He had previously been associated with Fox Hills Country Club on Staten Island, where he was club champion in 1917,[xxv] and which he represented in a pro-am match-play tournament he won at Pinehurst, North Carolina in 1920.[xxvi]
If it is true that Spindler was not a member of Winged Foot until after November 1931, then it is unlikely that Mulligan could have coined “mulligan” there in a foursome with Saxauer, Kaylor and Mulligan before October 1931. I contacted Winged Foot Golf Club for information on when the members of the Mulligan foursome joined the club, but as the journalists say, “they did not immediately (or ever) return my request for comment.”
In 1941, David Mulligan organized Winged Foot Golf Club’s “First Annual Mulligan Tournament.” The idea of a “mulligan tournament” was new (or at least the reporter believed it was new) but the “mulligan,” itself, was not:
The fact that Dave is president of the Biltmore Hotel in New York is well known, but he’s become better known lately in golfing circles as the first to recognize the long cherished ambition of every golfer to make up legitimately for some of those dubbed strokes. Not so long ago Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones were playing golf with the Duke of Kent, and when His Royal Highness talked about strokes from these noted stars, one of them told him they’d give him a “Mulligan”. What the original relationship of the name may have been with golf we don’t know, but Dave is credited with the current blending of the name with the game, and it’s going to something entirely new on the metropolitan golf schedule next year.
Ottawa Journal (Ottawa, Ontario), October 11, 1941, page 29.
Tellingly, perhaps, the last sentence of the article seems to credit Dave Mulligan merely with inventing the tournament, and not with the “mulligan” itself.
What’s more, David Mulligan did not even invent the so-called “mulligan tournament” as the writer believed. “Mulligan tournaments,” by that name and other names, had been described in golf journals, texts, and in real life from as early as 1921:
Another kickers’ tournament[xxvii] is one invented for those given to saying how good their scores would have been had they not driven into the woods or creek, etc. It is arranged so that the players are allowed to replay one shot on each hole, which must be done immediately after the unsatisfactory shot is made. No shot can be played over when the player has reached the green.
Golfers’ Magazine, Volume 38, Number 4, April 1921, page 36.
The women golfers will hold a “practice shot” tournament on the Fort Hunter links. . . . [E]ach golfer will play nine holes and at each hole be permitted a practice shot. Supposing, for instance, when the player tees off, at the start, the drive is a poor one. She then may make another drive without increasing her score.
The Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), July 13, 1925, page 9.
Kickers’ Tournament: In this event, any player can play over again any shot on every hole, provided he does it before he takes the succeeding stroke. He may not replay a putt.
Golf Professionals’ Handbook of Business (3rd Edition), Providence, Rhode Island, United States Rubber Company, [c1932], page 95.
A couple years after the word “mulligan” first appeared in print in Detroit in 1931, “mulligan handicap” tournaments and “mulligan tournaments” appear in newspapers in and near Detroit, perhaps lending credence to the suggestion that “mulligan” originated in or near Detroit:
|Detroit Free Press, June 17, 1934, page 19.|
|Detroit Free Press, June 24, 1935, page 14.|
In 1939, there was a “mulligan tournament” in Akron, Ohio, just across Lake Erie from Detroit:
|Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), September 9, 1939, page 10.|
The earliest account of David Mulligan coining “mulligan” in Montreal in the 1920s appeared in an advertisement for Mulligan, a golf-themed restaurant that opened in Hollywood, Florida in early 1972. Elements of the story, the “harrowing” ride, the “frightening” journey, his “mild state of shock,” and “special consideration and sympathy,” are repeated verbatim in later retellings, suggesting that restaurant’s ad and menu were the source of all later versions:
A man named Mulligan leads us off the path of righteousness today. That’s David Mulligan, one-time manager of the Windsor Hotel in Ottawa. . . .
Seems that four golfers from Montreal played regularly together, but only Mulligan had a car and it was always his duty to drive the others to the country club over bumpy dire roads. On arrival, they’d hurry from the car to the first tee, but the driver – after the harrowing ride was usually in a mild state of shock. His first attempt at a drive frequently reflected his nervousness and the ball landed deeply into the rough.
Because he was entitled to special consideration and sympathy, the other members of the group gave him a second shot. Thus, the practice of hitting a second ball from the first tee became known as “taking a Mulligan.”
Fort Lauderdale News (Florida), March 12, 1972, page 69 [5E].
A more expansive version of the same story appeared on the back of Mulligan’s menu, as reported the Ottawa Journal in 1973:
[T]here is a restaurant in Hollywood, Florida, called Mulligan, hard-by a golf course, and Harry Mulligan, pro at the Glenlea Club, visited the place this past winter and brought home one of their menus.
On the back is their account of the term. According to them, four golfers from Montreal played regularly at the St. Lambert Club. Only one of them owned a car, and so it fell to him to drive the others out to the club.
This was back in the early twenties, and driving in those days was at least adventurous. The drive this foursome had was long, the car unpredictable, the roads exceedingly poor and service stations miles apart.
The harrowing journey finished with a frightening passage across a bridge more than a mile lon, and a bridge not built for automobiles, but for narrow-stanced horse-drawn traffic.
Still in Shock
On arrival, the foursome would change shoes and hustle up onto the first tee, often near the dead run, and the driver was still in a mild state of shock. As a result, his first swipe at the ball usually reflected his state of nervousness and anxiety and rarely moved far, or, in the intended direction.
Because he was the driver, though, he was entitled to special sympathy and consideration, and the other members of the group agreed he should be given a second try.
His name was David Mulligan, and he was the manager of the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, and so the second try became a Mulligan, and came into rather common usage at that club, then at other courses in the area, finally across Canada and now, all over the world.
The Ottawa Journal, April 26, 1973, page 27.
The story reached the pages of Golf Digest in June 1974, during the run-up to the US Open to be held at Winged Foot later that summer:
Winged Foot Golf Club, site of the 1974 U. S. Open has produced considerable lore over its more than half century of existence. Its membership even included at one time the man who inspired the term “Mulligan,” a familiar one to golfers everywhere.
Back in the 1920s, as the story goes, a Montreal hotel manager named David Mulligan used to slip off regularly with three companions for a round of golf at the Country Club of Montreal. The harrowing auto trip over a narrow road culminated in a frightening passage across a bridge built not for cars but for horse-drawn wagons.
On arrival, the foursome hurried to the first tee usually still in a mild state of shock – most of all the driver, Mulligan. His first attempt off the tee frequently reflected his nervousness from the trip. Since he was the driver and therefore entitled to special consideration and sympathy, his companions would give him a second try. They began calling this gratuitous second shot “a Mulligan,” and the term followed the hotel man when he went to New York as manager of the Waldorf and subsequently joined Winged Foot G. C.
“How the ‘Mulligan’ was Named,” Golf Digest, Volume 25, Number 6, June 1974, page 27.
A few weeks later, the Philadelphia Inquirer illustrated how easy it is to muddle the details in retelling a story, curiously blending details about Montreal while maintaining that the expression originated at Winged Foot:
Winged Foot is where, they claim, the “Mulligan” was born. One of the members was David Mulligan, who had moved from Montreal where he’s played regularly on a course that was so remote you had to drive your car over a rickety bridge which was designed only for horse-drawn wagons. Mulligan was usually in such a state of shock upon completing the trip that his first shot reflected it, so he was always given a second tee-off attempt free.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 13, 1974, page 27.
While it may be easy to pooh-pooh the credibility of a back-of-the-menu copywriter, at least two eyewitnesses later chimed to corroborate elements of the story and add more details, so it deserves a closer look.
In 1973, Johnny Patton, who claimed to have been a member of Mulligan’s regular foursome in Montreal, sent his account to the Ottawa Journal:
Let me first say that I have read many articles about the origin of the ‘Mulligan’ and yours is the best written and most accurate of them all.
I might elaborate a bit and say that Dave Mulligan was the only one who had a car, an old Briscoe touring car (are you old enough to remember that make?), and as you say, Dave used to drive. However, from his hotel, The Windsor, it was only about 3 ½ miles to the gold course across the Victoria Bridge.
The bridge is 1 ¾ miles long. The floor of the bridge was made of 12-inch wide by four-inch thick planks laid crossways so that any planks worn thin by the horses’ shoes could be replaced easily. It was almost like driving a corduroy road. The rest, as you describe, is very true. . . . .
As I recall, the foursome consisted of the late Dr. Arnold Mitchell, and Dave’s nephew, M. Donnie Grant, now the general manager or executive vice-president of the New York Mets, I can’t remember which.
Just one more item. As you can see by the letter head, the course was the Country Club of Montreal, not the St. Lambert Club. And the years this all happened were, to the best of my memories, 1924-25.
The Ottawa Journal, May 12, 1973, page 23.
Twenty-five years later, Mulligan’s nephew “Donnie Grant,” M. Donald Grant, who, like his uncle, had his share of sports management success as the General Manager of the “Miracle Mets” World’s Series champions in 1969, gave his account to the New York Times. Grant’s version of events disagrees with Patton’s account on the issue of who drove the car, and conflict’s with David Mulligan’s claim that he had been the first person to use the term “mulligan”:
The other version comes from M. Donald Grant, the noted New Yorker and a second cousin [(or perhaps nephew)] of Mulligan. He has it that while managing the Windsor, Mulligan had a harried schedule that forced him to rush to get to the golf course so he could return in time to see after the evening affairs at the hotel. He dressed in the car on the way out -- young Grant did the driving -- and otherwise was in a hasty way. As a result, he would usually top his first shot. He would then hit another and, because he was such a jolly and well-liked fellow -- that's the key in all this -- his mates let him get away with it.
''With a snicker,'' Grant adds.
However, only when someone else was given or took the same favor did the term emerge, according to Grant. ''One day, Charles Gordon, one of the regulars, topped his drive,'' Grant recalled, ''and as we were about to leave the tee, he said: 'Wait a minute, boys, I'm going to take a mulligan.' Thereafter, all of us did it, and it grew like wildfire.''
For my money, the Montreal story leaves much to be desired. Patton’s and Grant’s eyewitness accounts differ on the key point of who drove the car. Patton’s and Mulligan’s accounts disagree on the key point of who said “mulligan” first. And the plot element of the long, bumpy drive over the bridge strikes me as overly dramatic and overblown.
|The Victoria Bridge 1901. Image from Wikimedia Commons.|
The Country Club of Montreal is located in Saint-Lambert, Quebec, across the river from Montreal and connected to Montreal by the mile-long Victoria Bridge. The stone piers of the Victoria Bridge were built during the 1850s, when the original tubular bridge was built. The tubes were replaced by the current metal trusses in 1897/1898. And although the bridge was built before automobile traffic was common, it was also built to carry trains – and has lasted for more than 150 years, so it was not as “rickety” as the menu version suggests.
In addition, although the portion of the roadbed built to carry vehicle traffic may have been designed primarily for narrower horse-drawn vehicles, and may have been bumpy by modern standards, automobiles of the 1920s had thinner tires and narrower bodies than cars of the 1970s, and roads were generally not as smooth in the 1920s as they were in the 1970s, so the ride would not have been as much of an issue for 1920s drivers with 1920s sensibilities.
What was so special about Mulligan’s trip to the golf course that he would receive such special consideration after driving it?
Perhaps it wasn’t so special.
American tourists enjoyed the ride in 1923:
The boulevard before reaching Victoria bridge is delightful and the mile ride across the St. Lawrence over Victoria Bridge is slow but enjoyable.
Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), July 22, 1923, page 55.
In 1924, the pavement on the approach to the bridge was considered poor, and there was no mention about the surface on the bridge other than its being “narrow”:
From Lake Placid . . . to Montreal the pavement is in good shape, with the exception of the approach to the very narrow Victoria bridge across the St. Lawrence.
Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1924, page 26.
And in any case, wouldn’t nearly everyone (or at least a significant percentage) who crossed from Montreal to Saint-Lambert have gone across the same bridge? Hundreds of Canadian cars crossed the bridge every day in 1920; the traffic in the late 1920s would likely have been much greater:
Closing of the Victoria Bridge at Montreal for five days last week brought out the fact that the bridge is used daily by from 700 to 1,200 vehicles, of which over 70 percent come from the United States.
The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), September 7, 1920, page 4.
It seems unlikely to me that Mulligan’s trip would have been so much more harrowing for him, even if he was the one driving, than everyone else’s that they would give him such notable “special consideration.”
Personally, I would have been more terrified driving over the ice during the bridge closure of 1927:
|The Richmond Item (Richmond, Indiana), February 10, 1927, page 1.|
But I guess people back in the day were more accustomed to things people today might find frightening – like long, narrow bridges.
Which is why I find it unconvincing that the Mulligan’s drive across the bridge was so remarkable that we would still be talking about it today.
John A. “Buddy” Mulligan
John A. “Buddy” Mulligan’s name was not thrown into the mix until late-1974, apparently in reaction to the spate of “mulligan” articles on the heels of Golf Digest repeating the Mulligan’s menu’s version of events during the run-up to the US Open to be held at Winged Foot later that summer. One of his golfing buddies told the story first, and “Buddy” chimed in a year later. Both accounts describe the origin of “mulligan” in the mid-1930s – a couple or a few years after the expression first appeared in print in Detroit in 1931.
John A. “Buddy” Mulligan, a native of West Orange, New Jersey, worked as a locker room attendant at Essex Fells Country Club (New Jersey) in the 1930s. Years later, while a patient at the Lyons Veterans Administration Hospital, he helped run their nine-hole golf course, first as a volunteer, and later in a paid position. In between, he served in World War II, ran a lingerie factory and worked as a textile salesman.
In October 1974, Des Sullivan, a golf writer for the Newark Evening News and past President of the Golf Writers of America, recalled how it happened:
Des claims that in the mid-thirties there were about three ready for a daily game at Essex Fells Country Club. . . . Invariably they persuaded the club lockerman, Buddy Mulligan, to drop his chores and join them. Just as invariably, Mulligan would fluff his first tee shot.
He complained this was because the other three rushed him off his job without giving him a chance to get ready. So they invited him to take another and play it.
The “Mulligan” spread and now is a national golf institution.
“An Errant Shot? . . . Try a Mulligan,” John S. Brodhead Jr., The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), October 8, 1974, page 32.
In 1975, it was Buddy’s talked to the press:
The “mulligan” was born in the mid-1930s, during the dreary days of the Great Depression, when Buddy Mulligan was the lockerrman at Essex Fells Country Club. Responsible for the “birth” of the now legendary term were Mulligan, Dave O’Connell, the assistant pro at Essex Fells at the time, and Des Sullivan, a police reporter for the former Bronx Home News in New York who later became one of New Jersey’s top amateur golfers and a golf columnist (“Divot Diggings”) for 25 years at the Newark Evening News . . . .
While Buddy’s first tee shot hardly was to be admired, his gift for gab – which he used to good advantage later as an excellent salesman – made up for some of his quick disadvantage.
“This is a fraud,” he told his golfing partners. “You two are out here practicing all morning while I’m working. You expect me to start cold with nothing more than a practice swing. The least you ‘thieves’ can do is give me another drive so I don’t have to go bouncing around in those trees every time.”
Mulligan proved persuasive. He also quickly spread the word around the Essex Fells locker room about how he had “taken” O’Connell and Sullivan. Essex Fells members laughed at first and then concluded Mulligan had a good idea.
Soon they were taking “mulligans” on the first tee and the strategy quickly spread to other New Jersey clubs and eventually all across the country.
“How Golfing’s Mulligan ‘ Got Its Name,” The Bernarsville News – Observer-Tribune – Echoes-Sentinel (Warren Township, New Jersey), July 10, 1975, page 18.
The expressions “take a mulligan at” and “Swat Mulligan” denoted big hitters in baseball, golf and cricket from as early as 1917. The expression was based on a larger-than-life fictional professional baseball player named “Swat Mulligan.”
The earliest known date of a golf “mulligan” in print is from October 1931, and the two earliest examples of “mulligan” in print relate to a professional baseball player who excelled at golf.
In 1941, an article about Winged Foot’s “First Annual Mulligan Tournament” credited David Mulligan with organizing the first “mulligan tournament,” while expressly stating that the origin of “mulligan” was unknown.
In 1952, David Mulligan said that he coined “mulligan” while playing with his regular foursome at Winged Foot, but based on the names of the members he said were in his foursome, it could not have happened until sometime after November 1931.
In 1972, a golf-themed restaurant took out ads with a story crediting David Mulligan with coining “mulligan” in Montreal in the 1920s, and a more detailed version of the story appeared on the back of their menu. A newspaper in Ottawa picked up the story in 1973 and it subsequently appeared in Golf Digest in 1974. Two eyewitnesses who played golf with Mulligan in Montreal confirmed some aspects of the story, but disagreed with each other on significant details, and they both contradicted David Mulligan’s own version of events recorded two decades earlier.
In 1974, Des Sullivan reported that “Buddy” Mulligan coined “mulligan” at Essex Fells in the “mid-1930s”. “Buddy” Mulligan concurred that it happened in the “mid-1930s”.
None of this proves that “mulligan” was derived from “Swat Mulligan” and does not definitively disprove Dave or “Buddy” Mulligan’s claims. But “Swat Mulligan” and “take a mulligan at” might easily have morphed into the golfing sense of “mulligan,” when used to golfers familiar with the terms taking a second shot, which they hoped would be a “Swat Mulligan” shot. The fact that the earliest accounts of a golfing “mulligan” in print relate to a golfing baseball player may be sheer coincidence, or may be a clue to a connection between the earlier and later senses of the word. The coincidence that all four of the earliest known examples of “mulligan” in print, as well as three early examples of “mulligan handicap” or “mulligan tournaments,” all appeared in or near Detroit suggests a possible local origin of “mulligan” in that area.
Dave Mulligan almost certainly did not coin “mulligan” in Montreal in the 1920s. Not only does the story appear to have been written by an advertising copywriter in 1972, it contradicts Mulligan’s own words and arguably strains credulity.
Dave Mulligan’s late-in-life claim to have coined “mulligan” also appears to contradict the 1941 article about Winged Foot’s “First Annual Mulligan Tournament,” in which the writer credited Mulligan with creating the idea of such a tournament, yet expressed the belief that the origins of the “mulligan,” itself, were unknown.
“Buddy” Mulligan may have taken “mulligans” in the mid-1930s, but the fact that he and his witness placed his purported coining of the term in the “mid-1930s,” a couple or a few years after the word appeared in Detroit, likely disproves his claim.
Or did either one of David or “Buddy” Mulligan actually coin the expression, only to misremember or misstate the dates decades later? Might Dave Mulligan been mistaken about the location or the foursome he was playing with at the time?
You be the judge.
[ii] Henry McLemore, Lincoln Evening Journal (Nebraska), April 15, 1937, page 13 (UP).
[iii] The original spelling, and most frequent spelling, was “Swat Milligan,” although his name was frequently rendered as (and apparently widely understood to be) “Swat Mulligan.”
[v] Tommy Armour’s name may be familiar to Wal-Mart customers. Their line of golf clubs bears his name.
[vi] Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1932, page 13. Garson O’Toole, of QuoteInvestigator.com posted this citation on the American Dialect Society’s discussion list on April 20, 2017. His post inspired my search which identified the earlier example.
[vii] Detroit Free Press, April 24, 1933, page 15. Samuel Clement posted this citation on the American Dialect Society’s discussion list on April 16, 2016.
[viii] Detroit Free Press, September 9, 1933, page 13.
[ix] Sport Slants by Pap, St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minnesota), May 6, 1936, page 9 (William Saffire credited “slangsleuth” Paul Dickson with finding this citation, On Language, “Mulligan Primary,” William Safire, The New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2008).
[x] “Henry Pays Golf Money for Net Information,” Henry McLemore, United Press, Lincoln Evening Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), April 15, 1937, page 13.
[xi] “Henry Has His Own Baseball Ideas,” Henry McLemore, United Press, Lansing State Journal (Lansing, Michigan), April 16, 1938, page 7.
[xiii] “Ottawa Loses One of Her Best Sportsmen in the Departure of D. Mulligan,” The Ottawa Journal, May 8, 1911, page 4.
[xiv] Interview with D. B. Mulligan, Hotel Monthly, Volume 19, Number 214, January 1911, page 35.
[xv] Hotel Monthly, Volume 19, Number 220, July 1911, page 53.
[xvi] The Ottawa Journal, August 16, 1950, page 1.
[xvii] Chicago Daily Tribune, December 28, 1954, page 14.
[xviii] “Golf Roundup,” Johnny Carrico, The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), May 25, 1952, page 34.
[xix] The Ottawa Journal, December 27, 1954, page 12.
[xx] “Don Macintosh of the Sudbury Star claims the North Bay Trappers are the team to beat in the NOHA southern group circuit this winter.” The Evening News (Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan), November 3, 1952, page 10.
[xxi] 1940 US Census for Mamaroneck, New York as viewed on Ancestry.com.
[xxii] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 26, 1932, page 2.
[xxiii] The Ithaca Journal (Ithaca, New York), November 20, 1931, page 16 (P. C. Pulver, editor of a magazine for professional golfers, says that no one worked harder for the Alex Smith memorial than John Inglis, . . . and that no one more ably assisted Mr. Inglis than L. G. Spindler, the old Fox Hills golfer, also active in the Westchester Country Club . . . .”).
[xxiv] The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 16, 1929, page 23.
[xxv] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pennsylvania), October 27, 1917, page 10.
[xxvi] The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 1, 1920, page 23.
[xxvii] A standard “kickers’” tournament involved self-handicapping; thereby avoiding the complaints (kicking) that arise from disputes with the handicappers. Many “kickers’” tournaments involved a certain amount of luck because prizes for getting a net score close to a randomly drawn score from a range of likely scores (e.g., 68-82). Other fun, non-standard scoring tournaments were also referred to, on occasion, as “kickers’ tournaments.”