Thomas Mulligan: Man or Myth?

August 25, 2022

In the basement of a dusty old bookstore, I recently came across a beaten-up copy of “Mulligan’s Laws,” by the Thomas Mulligan, Fourth Earl of Murphy.

It looked well used, as if after each round of golf the owner beat it with his or her nine iron. At the bottom of the torn book jacket, I noticed it was edited by Henry Beard, who according to Wikipedia, disappeared off the face of the earth after last being seen playing golf in California. It also stated he never kept score (I understand the last part), so maybe this was his personal copy.

But where did the term Mulligan originate? Was it named after a real person, or was it a cute name for the longer term, “why don’t you take a do-over?” Golfing minds want to know.

A thorough search online revealed the term may have originated in the early 1800s from the Scottish slang, “maul- it-again.” This seemed like a plausible answer, until I discovered Mulligan’s book.

Mulligan, who lived to the ripe old age of 86 (1793-1879), not only invented the “Mulligan,” but also added his own laws of the game, which infuriated the Scottish purists of the time.

After his death, on April 1, 1879, the original manuscript of his book was found in his golf locker and hidden away by his longtime caddie, who saved his wisdom for the ages. He later sold it for big bucks to a London publisher, since Mulligan rarely tipped.

So now, 143 years later, I will share with you the wit and wisdom of a man who loved to hate the game of golf.

The game: “The game of golf is 90% mental and 10% mental, but remember, if your driver is hot, your putter will be cold; if you hit crisp iron shots, you will top your woods and if your right elbow is tucked in, your head will fly up.” He goes on to say, “the secret of golf is to hit your Mulligan first and use your real swing to take a big divot.”

Scoring: “Strokes always accumulate faster than they can be forgotten and since bad shots come in groups of three, a fourth bad shot is the beginning of the next group of three.”  

Here was a golfer who had a firm grip on reality.  My personal favorite about scoring is: “The score a player reports on any hole should always be considered as his opening offer. Another pearl of wisdom is: “The only way to find a drive sliced deep into the woods is to hit a provisional ball 260 yards down the middle.”

The foursome: “Don’t play with anyone that will question a seven” and remember, “The less skilled the player is, the more likely he is to share his ideas about the golf swing.”

Golf Etiquette:  He actually has numerous tips listed, but his top two were: “Always replace your divots in the fairway and rake footprints in the sand trap, even if you have to move your ball.”

“Remember it only takes a few extra seconds to pick up a club left on the green by the group of slower players in front of you and throw it deep into the woods.”

Playing the game: “Nonchalant putts count the same as chalant putts,” “The wind will always be in your face on 16 of the 18 holes” and “The ball will always land on the green, where the pin was yesterday.”

Was Thomas Mulligan a real person? I personally hope so, but do we really know for sure? Is he another elusive mystery like the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot?

There was however, one law in his book the golf purists of Scotland agreed with: “The most difficult shot in golf is a perfect lie in the fairway, 150 yards from the pin!”

19th Hole Trivia: Personal Favorites

Thanks to Thomas Mulligan and Henry Beard for a few more nuggets: “Never wash your ball on the tee of a water hole.

“It takes 17 holes to get warmed up.”

“The odds of hitting a chili-dip increase by the square of the number of people watching.”

“Never try to keep more than 300 separate thoughts in your mind during your swing”

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