What Is a Mulligan in Golf? A Complete Guide to the Term


A golfer completes his follow through after swinging an iron.

If the offer to use a mulligan in golf is extended to you, it’s often wise to graciously accept it. Life rarely hands anyone a second chance at anything so if the opportunity for a free pass comes your way, take it. That’s why mulligans are so useful in a game as difficult as golf.

So, what is a mulligan in golf?

A mulligan in golf is a one-time free pass to take a do-over swing when one’s first attempt at the shot fails miserably. Mulligans are most often used on the teeing ground of the first hole when one’s first shot of the round goes awry.

The true intention of the game of golf is to play the ball as it lies and that every swing counts. However, golf is also intended to be fun and not every round of golf is meant to be competitive. With this in mind, mulligans offer new and beginner golfers the chance to hit the same shot twice with no penalty or judgment.

Mulligans do however come with several stipulations and if they are used in a friendly, competitive game with friends, it should come from a mutually agreed-upon decision. The use of mulligans in golf provides the game with a significant distinction not found in other popular sports like football, baseball and soccer.

What Is the Origin of the Mulligan?

The origin of the mulligan in golf is one steeped in folklore with several origin stories. However, two stand out as the most credible and both stories include men with the last name Mulligan.

The first story dates back to the 1920s when New York City hotelier David Bernard Mulligan claims to have first used the term. David played in a regular foursome at St. Lambert Country Club in Montreal, Canada, and one particular morning, he hit an incredibly awful drive on the first tee.

Without permission from his playing partners and despite their befuddled amazement at the audacity to perform such an action, Mulligan simply grabbed another ball, re-teed it and hit again.

When his playing competitors questioned his actions, Mulligan replied, “I’m taking a correction shot.” In an interview later held in 1985, Mulligan describes the moment when it happened. “I was so provoked with myself that, on impulse, I stooped over and put down another ball.

The other three looked at me…and one of them asked, ‘What are you doing?’…Thinking fast, I told him that I called it {the correction shot} a ‘Mulligan’”.

The second shot stood and Mulligan and his partner would go on to win the match by one point, sparking considerable discussion about the legality of a free shot in golf. The ‘Mulligan’ became an unwritten rule in their foursome under the principle that if you weren’t satisfied with your opening tee shot, each player would be allowed to ‘take a Mulligan’.

The second origin story of the mulligan comes from John A. “Buddy” Mulligan who worked as a locker room attendant at Essex Fells Country Club in New Jersey in the 1930’s. Two men, Des Sullivan and Essex Fells Assistant Golf Professional Dave O’Connell, had practiced and played all day at the club. The two decided they wanted to play a money game and invited Buddy to join their group.

Having worked all day, Buddy stepped onto the first tee and hit a very poor first shot. Distraught over his inability to practice before the round like the other two because he had worked all day, Buddy explicitly decreed out of fairness that he should be afforded another first shot. The second attempt was granted by Des and Dave and the shot was thus named a ‘Mulligan’ in Buddy’s honor.

How Does a Mulligan Work in Golf?

A golfer lines up his driver with the golf ball.

Taking a mulligan is pretty simple. If your first attempt at a shot fails miserably, grab another ball and place it exactly like the first one and try again.

Say for instance you are on the first tee, much like the two mulligans in the origin stories above, and you hit a really bad shot into the thick collection of trees and bushes bordering the right side of the hole, all you have to do is simply grab another golf ball, re-tee it and give it another try.

What Are the Rules for a Mulligan in Golf?

Mulligans tend to operate in the gray area of the game of golf. It is an unwritten rule in the game and mulligan rules are established on a case-by-case basis among playing partners. However, there are some basic guidelines to follow should mulligans be included in your next round of golf.

  • Mulligans are most commonly used on the opening shot of the first hole. Many golfers do not practice on the driving range before their round and often the first swing of the day is on the tee box of the first hole. If you spent an hour before your tee time hitting range balls, don’t expect your playing partners to oblige your request at a ‘correction shot’.
  • Don’t use mulligans if you plan to post your score for handicap purposes. Because a handicap is a calculation to determine a golfer’s true playing ability from golf course to golf course, including mulligans in scores posted for establishing handicaps will often be at the detriment of the golfer. Using a mulligan in place of a lost golf ball will lower scores and over time allow for fewer handicap strokes and show the golfer is better than they actually are.
  • The use of mulligans must be mutually agreed upon by all parties before the start of the round. Using a mulligan without express permission is considered cheating and is an unfair, non-equitable form of play especially amongst friendly competition.
  • Mulligans should NEVER be used in an officially sanctioned tournament. Any officially sanctioned golf tournament by an Accredited Golf Association will be played under the Rules of Golf, which explicitly state that the ball must be played as it lies and that every shot must count unless otherwise determined by the Rules of Golf.
  • Mulligans are often sold as ancillary fundraisers in charity golf outings. Many charitable fundraising golf outings will sell mulligans as a means for raising additional dollars. In this case, golfers should plan to buy as many as the tournament will allow. A common practice for a tournament like this is to sell one mulligan for $20 or six for $100. These mulligans are usually for the team to use at their discretion for any shot at any time on the golf course. Teams that buy the most mulligans often play the best for obvious reasons but it’s not always the case.

Are Mulligans Included in the Rules of Golf?

The Rules of Golf don’t allow for the use of mulligans. The Rules of Golf explicitly say the ball must be played as it lies and every stroke must count unless a specific provision under the Rules allows for any exceptions. Such exceptions include a ball lying in ‘Ground Under Repair’ in which turf conditions offer unfair disadvantages and the golfer is provided free relief from the affected area.

Additionally, any strokes taken with a ‘Wrong Golf Ball’ (a golf ball that is not THE golf ball used to start play of the hole) don’t count towards the golfer’s score. However, playing with a ‘Wrong Ball’ will cost the golfer a two-stroke penalty.

Mulligans are an unwritten rule of golf and should be used only for fun, in mutually agreed upon friendly rounds or as part of a charitable fundraising golf outing.

Is it Ok to Take a Mulligan Anytime?

A golfer in orange shorts and a backward hat tees off.

It’s OK to take a mulligan anytime only if the mulligan rules for the round of golf say so. Mulligans are most commonly used only on the first tee of the first hole during the first shot of the round.

How Many Mulligans Are Golfers Allowed to Take?

Typically, golfers are only allowed to take one mulligan per round unless the group agrees that more mulligans can be used. One thing to consider if golfers are allowed to take as many mulligans as necessary is that it will drastically slow the pace of play for the round.

The more shots one person takes, the longer the round of golf will be. So while it might be fun to play with unlimited mulligans it is prudent to exercise moderation for the sake of playing at a faster pace. Too many mulligans and a simple round of golf will look more like practice than actual play.

When Can You Take a Mulligan in Golf?

The most common and accepted place to take a mulligan is on the tee box of the first hole of the round. The underlying thought here is that as the golfer progresses through their round they should be better able to navigate the golf course and accept the results of the swings as they come.

However, if a new or beginner golfer is just out on the course looking to have a good time and they don’t plan on counting their score, they should be able to hit a mulligan at any time.

As new golfers develop their skill and feel for the golf swing, it is often very valuable to have a second attempt at a difficult shot to advance their learning and understanding of the golf swing and the strategy needed to play well. It is best to limit yourself in this case to no more than one mulligan per hole to keep the round moving along.

When Is the Best Time to Use a Mulligan?

A golfer tees off with his driver.

If a golfer is allowed to use a mulligan at any point during the round, the decision to do so should be a strategic decision. Here are a few considerations if faced with such a strategic decision:

  • Mulligan for a ball hit into a water hazard or out of bounds. If a golfer is on the tee box of any hole and the tee shot goes into a water hazard or is hit out of bounds, they will receive a one-stroke penalty for a lost ball. Taking a mulligan here will allow the golfer to avoid the penalty, as long as the mulligan doesn’t follow the path of the first shot.
  • Mulligan for an approach shot that misses the green. If a golfer is in the fairway of a hole and faces what should be an easy shot into the green (i.e. inside 100 yards) and subsequently misses the green and lands in a bunker or under a tree or bush, this might be a great place to take a mulligan.
  • Mulligan for a missed putt. If a golfer faces an uphill, straight five-foot putt for birdie and misses, this might be a great place to take a mulligan. However, if you have a limited number of mulligans, it is best to save them for a time when it will cancel any penalty strokes due to a lost ball.

Provisional Mulligan vs Must Mulligan

There are two types of mulligans in golf. The first type of mulligan is the ‘Provisional Mulligan’. The provisional mulligan stipulates that if the mulligan is worse than the first shot, the golfer will have the option of choosing to play their first shot.

The second type of mulligan is called a ‘Must Mulligan’. A must mulligan expressly implies that no matter the outcome of the mulligan shot, even if it’s worse than the first shot, the mulligan must be played.

The important consideration here is that all golfers in a group must decide before the start of play what type of mulligans are going to be used as there are drastic differences between the two types and each may result in completely different scores on the hole.

Are There Other Names for a Mulligan in Golf?

There are a few other names for a mulligan in golf and the names are determined by the time of day in which the round occurs. Mulligans are most often granted as a do-over for a poorly hit shot on the teeing ground of the first hole. If the round is played in the morning, a mulligan will often be called a ‘Breakfast Ball’.

Similarly, if a round is started shortly after lunch, it is common to use the term ‘Lunch Ball’. Another way of communicating any wish to include mulligans in your round is to ask your playing partners if it’s acceptable to ‘take two off the first tee’.

This implies if your first shot was not good, you can take a mulligan and attempt to do better. However, if you hit the first one really well down the center of the fairway, it is often best to go with the first one and forgo the optional second shot, especially if you are playing a must-mulligan.

Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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