Golf: Mulligan Vs. Handicap

The basic rules of golf are straightforward. Play the ball as it lies. Count every stroke. Take the requisite penalties if the ball is unplayable or in a hazard.

A gross golf score is the total number of strokes, plus any penalties, that a player takes to get from the first tee to holing out on the 18th green.

A net score is the total score after the player's handicap has been subtracted from the gross score. While a handicap is sanctioned by the United States Golf Association, mulligans are not.

What Is a Handicap?

How a handicap is calculated is based on a formula that includes the golfer's 10 best scores out of his most recent 20 rounds.

Two numerical ratings specific to the course are factored in: the course rating and the slope rating. A golfer must be a member of a golf club, and the course must be sanctioned by the USGA. While the formula can get complicated, the concept is simple. A handicap levels the playing field so that differently skilled players can compete against each other.

Effect of Handicap

The handicap is subtracted from the number of actual strokes executed in a round of golf. It is possible to adjust the handicap for executive courses, nine-hole courses and courses that have a par that is above or below 72.

What this means is that an 8-handicap golfer who posts a score of 90 on a par-72 course recognized by the USGA would end up with a score of 82 after it's adjusted for the handicap.

A 15-handicap golfer with a score of 94 would end up with a handicapped or net score of 79 and win over the lower-handicapped player. Some recreational tournaments award prizes for best gross and best net scores.


A mulligan is a "do-over" shot, taken after an unsuccessful shot was played. While there is no definitive answer as to where the term originated or why, reports that according to legend, a Canadian golfer named David Mulligan hit a nice, long drive off the first tee one day. Unfortunately, it was long but not straight and ended up in the deep rough. Mulligan decided to replay that first drive and not assess himself a penalty.

His playing partners agreed to this departure from the rules and the "mulligan" became part of golf lexicon. Although mulligans are taken by many recreational golfers in their informal rounds, especially off the first tee, they are not allowed in official tournaments.

Effect of a Mulligan

Theoretically, a mulligan can alter the entire results of a round of golf.

If that first drive ends up in the water, the player who takes a mulligan avoids a two-stroke penalty and the negative effect on his confidence from starting the round badly. Taking the shot over could put him on the path to a much better score.

When Mulligans are Used

Some golf games allow mulligans, such as "Freebies." Each player is allowed a predetermined amount of replays.

Another game involving replays is called "Gotcha" – in this case, a player can make his opponent replay a shot.

If mulligans are to be allowed, all members of the group agree to it before the start of the round rather than one player arbitrarily deciding to give himself a do-over without consulting his playing partners. Some amateur charity events sell mulligans as an additional fundraiser.

USGA Rules

Mulligans are not allowed under the Rules of Golf.

A handicap may be allowed when playing in amateur competitions such as club tournaments, but not in top amateur tournaments such as the U.S. Amateur Championship. Professionals do not use handicaps since their gross scores are used to determine the winner.