“We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’” Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, told Politico’s Isaac Dovere last Tuesday. By “him” Perkins meant the president of the United States. Perkins used the same term in an interview that day with CNN’s Erin Burnett: “Yes, evangelicals, conservatives, they gave him a mulligan. They let him have a do-over. They said we’ll start afresh with you and we’ll give you a second chance.” And he repeated it twice on Thursday in a post he published on FRC.org under his own byline titled “On Morals and Mulligans…” He meant mulligan in its “political” sense, he told his evangelical followers:
I’m not saying his performance as president can buy him grace -- only Christ can do that. And while evangelicals can give him a mulligan regarding their political support, only through repentance and God's forgiveness can he have a totally new start.
Yes, Perkins called in to CNN from Pride, Louisiana. His Twitter bio gives Washington, DC, as his location; it’s where the FRC is headquartered.
Perkins’s explanations of mulligan are roughly correct. But where did mulligan come from, and how did it get its Irish-sounding name?
A bit of context first. Perkins had been asked to comment on the story, published on January 12 in the Wall Street Journal, that a month before the 2016 election then-candidate Trump had arranged for a $130,000 payment to former adult-film actress Stormy Daniels as part of an agreement that she keep quiet about an affair – sorry, alleged affair – that she’d had with Trump in 2006, a few months after his youngest son, Barron, was born. (On January 19, InTouch Weekly published salacious details from a previously unreleased 2011 interview with Daniels, whose given name is Stephanie Clifford.)
The Trump-Daniels relationship – sorry, alleged relationship – was consensual, unlike the encounters reported by 19 women (so far) who have accused the 45th president of “sexual misconduct.” And the golfing term mulligan is an apt metaphor for this president, whose favorite (and only) participatory sport is golf.
There are conflicting stories about the origin of mulligan. One theory, according to a 2017 story published by the PGA, is that it was named for a Canadian-born amateur golfer, David Bernard Mulligan, who was active in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1985, Mulligan told an interviewer that he’d invented “mulligan” on the spot after taking “a correction shot.” In a variant telling, his golf partners came up with the term.
Mulligan is sometimes used jokingly as a brand name. Mulligan’s Golf Gear filed for trademark protection in February 2017.
A second theory holds that it was named after John A. “Buddy” Mulligan, a locker room attendant in the 1930s at the Essex Hills Country Club in New Jersey who occasionally played a round after his shift with two regulars. One day, after missing a shot, Mulligan asked for another one because the other men had been practicing all morning and he hadn’t. Club members began calling the extra shot a “mulligan,” and Des Sullivan, a member who became the golf editor of the Newark Evening News, began using it in his stories.
This version is at odds with the OED’s record of the first appearance in print of mulligan in the golf sense: in a 1936 story in the Big Springs (Texas) Daily Herald: “Another McIntyre-ism is the use of the ‘mulligan’—links-ology for a second shot employed after a previously dubbed shot.” (No clarification of who McIntyre was.)
Mulligan’s Irish Pub at Wentworth Golf Club, Tampa Bay, Florida.
A mulligan isn’t just any do-over, though. It’s technically illegal, and is accepted only in friendly, informal games. And according to some definitions it’s only allowed on a tee-shot.
Mulligan gradually came to mean – as it does in Tony Perkins’s usage – any second chance. The earliest citation for this generic usage, according to the Random House Dictionary of Historical Slang, is a 1996 column by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Coincidentally, it too was about politics. (“You’ve got to call it quits and get a decent nominee,” Dowd wrote in a mock-letter to the Republican National Convention. “Take a mulligan.”)
English actress Carey Mulligan, whose father is of Irish descent. For more than a century, “Mulligan” has served as a stand-in term for any Irish person; mulligan stew – a North American term first seen in print in 1898, in the Fresno (California) Morning Republican – is any stew made from a variety of ingredients.