Mulligans & Gilligans

What can Sikhi and other faiths pick up from golf? PROF I.J SINGH drives home some pointers

By I.J. Singh | OPINION

Years ago, I toyed a little with golf.  I was young enough to think the walk was too slow for my reckless energy.  So, my affair with golf didn’t last.

But golf’s style and language continue to fascinate me – now in the winter of my life they have a special resonance and romance.

Just days ago, after years away from golf I tried a round.  My thoughts went to the mulligan, gilligan, eagle, birdie and similar labels that give special meaning, not just to the game, but to life itself?  Par, remember, is the expected number of strokes it should take a competent golfer to complete a hole. Rarely does a round run on par. Why? Because our needs and wants are endless – way more than we deserve in golf or in life.  Isn’t that a universal human issue?  And to err is human, as it is to overestimate our skills and expectations.

In golf, a mulligan is a second chance at a stroke, usually after the first attempt went awry through bad luck, oversight or lack of skill. Its best-known meaning is in golf, whereby a player is informally allowed to replay a stroke, even though this is against the formal rules of golf.  I don’t know of any other sport that offers such second chances.

Parenthetically, I should add that there are many theories about the origin of the term.  One legend says that the mulligan is named after David Mulligan who played largely in New York and Montreal a hundred years ago in the 1920’s.  Heaven knows why and how his name signified a correction shot?  He might have insisted on the prerogative after hitting an embarrassingly bad shot because he had overslept and was rushing to make tee-time, or he might have been shaky after a difficult drive in traffic.  Apparently, his friends and admirers decided to name “the correction shot” after him.   An alternative story suggests that the Mulligan was named for a locker room attendant at a golf club in New Jersey.  Players enjoyed awarding themselves a Mulligan after a poorly executed drive, and sports writers picked up the practice. Mulligans save time by not having to look for a lost ball after an errant play.

A Mulligan’s philosophic opposite is the Gilligan which is a redo of a super-magical shot that is miraculously unbelievable and is then retried at the request (challenge) of the opponent. I am not aware of the origin of the term.

Every life deserves a mulligan.  Mulligans for everyone and every time seems to be the cry.  Isn’t this how a cat gets its proverbial nine lives?

All these magical illusions in golf turn my attention to the classic Indian philosophic and mythologic take on birth and death.  It is infinitely parsed and minutely analyzed, as opposed to the Judaic-Christian-Islamic position that speaks of a Day of Reckoning when the dead will be resurrected from their earthly graves and lifted up to the heavens bodily to face a final judgment. Mine is a very terse summary statement on a complex process but pursuing that is not my mandate today.

In the Indian mythologic take, life can run down a gamut of 8.4 million incarnations.  Which one form you or I inherit after death depends on how we have lived the form we are leaving and how it has been judged by the Creator and/or his minions.  This hypothetical model is best and most elaborately seen in Hindu philosophy but it also seems to be entirely accepted by Sikhi.  My personal take on this model is to take it as metaphoric and not literally true and I have written a detailed essay or two on it. My take is to look at life as something that addresses the art and purpose of living here on earth, and not get too obsessed with the unknown of a life after death.

But it seems that the Indian model of life after death — cycling between the myriad of possible life forms – is saying that after every term of life you receive a judgment that asks you to live again and see if you can improve your score, and continue the process until you get the ball in the hole.  Every game is designed on a score of par, but any hole (the goal) is rarely attained with that score.  The Indian philosophic position of birth and its cyclical reality is then be simply seen as a matter of serial mulligans until you get it right?

All religions promise the opportunity for errors (sins!) and their forgiveness.  Hence all religions are models of living where second chances abound – much like the cat with nine lives. We recognize that to err is human, and some are more human than others.  This is perhaps the one common thread where all religions have the same general view even if they vehemently disagree on serial birth, who deserves a second chance and who must rot in hell forever.  I am making no exceptions here of any major or minor religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhi, Bahai, Buddhism, Jainism … ad infinitum, and ad absurdum.

Similarly in golf, a round at par is always hoped for but is never or rarely expected.  Gilligans, on the other hand, raise suspicions of a rigged game.  Such unexpected good luck can’t be real and one may then repeat the stroke (or birth) to see if it is true.  Hence the call for a second chance.  Does life then become a game of multiple mulligans or gilligans?

Never realized that there may be unexpected philosophic depth behind the mulligans and gilligans in golf – in chasing a ball on open ground with well-placed holes.

It seems to me that where mulligans demand forgiveness, gilligans stand for humility, even if it is somewhat forced. What a life of mulligans and gilligans!

I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email:

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


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