What is a Mulligan?

Dan Cavallari

The term "mulligan" is used to refer to doing something again after doing it poorly the first time, with the second effort replacing the first. Many people would call it a "do-over." The term "mulligan" is believed to have originated in golf, but its use has spread into many contexts, such as business, politics and other fields. In golf, mulligans are not allowed under the official rules of the game, but they are often used during informal rounds. The informal rules regarding mulligans can vary widely and generally are whatever is agreed upon by the golfers.

Some card games include mulligans as part of the rules.
Some card games include mulligans as part of the rules.

Common Rules

Mulligans are most often allowed on tee shots, which are the first shots taken on holes. They also might be allowed on any shots between the tee and the green. Mulligans are almost never allowed on putts, however.

In golf, mulligans are not allowed under the official rules of the game.
In golf, mulligans are not allowed under the official rules of the game.

For many golfers, the only time a mulligan is allowed is on the first shot of an informal round of golf. The general idea is that no golfer wants to begin a round with a poor tee shot, so if the first shot goes awry, another one is allowed. Under these rules, if the second attempt also is a bad one, it must be counted.

In other instances, a certain number of mulligans — usually one, two or three — are allowed per round of 18 holes. Sometimes, a specific number — usually one or two — are allowed during the first nine holes, and the same number is allowed during the second nine holes. If any number of golfers are playing as a team, a certain number of mulligans might be allowed per team or per golfer.

Buying Mulligans in Fundraisers

Some golf tournaments that function as fundraisers allow golfers to purchase mulligans to use during their rounds. There often is no limit to the number of mulligans that can be bought, because each additional one raises more money for the cause. Some tournaments might sell different types of mulligans, such as those that can be used only on tee shots, only between the tee and green or even only on putts.

Other Contexts

"Mulligans" have become commonly referred to in many contexts in which someone might be given a second chance, or a "do-over." Any employee who fails to properly complete a task, for example, might be given a mulligan and allowed to try doing it again. This might be especially true if there was a good reason why the task was not completed properly the first time. Some games, such as board games or card games, include mulligans in their official rules. Other contexts in which this term might be used include relationships, health, music and sports other than golf.


The origin of this term is undetermined, although there are many theories about how it began. Most of these theories involve golf, and they usually include a golfer whose last name was Mulligan — although various theories indicate different people who had this last name. The term is known to have been in use by the late 1940s, and one theory suggests that it might be as old as the early 1800s. In this particular theory, a golfer who had the last name of Mulligan said that a round should not be considered to have started until the player had hit a satisfactory tee shot on the first hole.

A different story is that another golfer whose last name was Mulligan hit a poor tee shot, so he re-teed his ball and hit another. His playing partners began to refer to this as "taking a Mulligan." Another story is that this type of shot was named after a golfer who was known for secretly replaying poor shots as a way of cheating. There is even a theory that the term was first used by wealthy members of American country clubs as an ethnic slur against golfers who were Irish immigrants and who were considered inferior golfers.

At least one theory suggests that the origin of this term was not related to golf at all. This theory states that a mulligan was a bottle of liquor that had been placed on a saloon bar for customers to drink for free. Thus, anything that was free — or without penalty — came to be referred to as a mulligan.

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Discussion Comments


@Apunkin - Don’t feel bad, until I was about 17 I thought my granddad made the saying up. He used to tell stories that always involved one person or another taking a mulligan. It wasn’t until a history teacher used the phrase that I learned the truth. Isn’t it funny how we formulate ideas about idioms like this?


I never knew that declaring a mulligan originated with golf! I always thought it came from the card game, Magic: the Gathering. In MTG, a mulligan is called if a player doesn’t like their hand and wants to draw a new one. I guess I thought the creators of the game made it up. I’ve never heard it used in any other way.

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