f you play golf long enough, you develop a favorite shot. Some people delight in a solidly struck five-iron, others a long curving putt, still others a smoothly executed sand shot that lands on the green with little cat feet.
I love the mulligan.
An artfully played mulligan has saved me dozens of times from beginning an otherwise splendid round of golf with a hideous pratfall. Instead of being forced to play the result of my initial tee shot from somewhere deep inside the fifth circle of hell (where, according to Dante, the wrathful suffer), the mulligan allows me to re-tee a nice fresh ball and crush it joyously down the center of the fairway, straight into the land of milk and honey.
A mulligan is a do-over. When it’s agreed upon, it’s usually taken on the first tee. It got its name, as one version of the story goes, from a fellow named Mulligan, who had the only car in his regular foursome and was forced to pick up all the other golfers on the way to the course. For his exertions (or maybe because he was just bad at the game) he was allowed to take a second shot on the first tee when his first shot inevitably went horribly astray.
I always think of Mr. Mulligan, and his invaluable and inspired contribution to the game of golf, about this time every year. Two things serve as reminders: the turn of the new year, and the birth of Jesus.
Many people, of course, see every new year as a classic do-over, the nearly perfect clean slate. We’ve just emerged from the glow of the Christmas season, the days are already beginning to get longer, and life seems full of exciting possibilities. We may have made a bit of a hash out of the previous year, but chucking the old calendar into the dumpster is an act that glistens with happy symbolism.
For a real do-over, however, for the ultimate mulligan, you can’t beat the arrival of Christ on the scene and everything that it portended. Because for quite a long time, humankind had been getting it wrong, to one degree or another. We either were fixated on false gods, or vengeful and angry gods, or no gods at all, or a set of odd and arbitrary rules thicker than the California Vehicle Code. But now: a God who loved us, delighted in us, wanted only good for us, answered prayers and wanted us to be blissfully happy? And when we transgressed was eager, almost impatient, to forgive us? And who wanted so much to prove it that he became one of us? And how about the do-over of all do-overs: the Resurrection?
Here’s your brand-new Titleist, world. Tee it up.
It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but Christianity, in one of its more appealing aspects, is all about the mulligan. It’s about second chances and forgiveness. If we sincerely want to play the game straight, if we keep stepping up and trying for the best result and sometimes fail, we get another try, cheerfully guaranteed. The occasional mistake will not ruin the entire round.
And that’s not some fast-and-loose guideline. That’s in the rule book, in indelible ink.