Hardcore golfers hold one rule inviolable, at least in theory: Every shot counts. No second chances. No do-overs. A bad shot is a bad shot. But it still counts.
Except, of course, when a golfer takes a “mulligan.”
The infamous mulligan shot (the movie tells us) has its roots in an infamous game in the 1930s, in which David Mulligan miffed his first shot … and then took another. Thus, the mulligan was born: a do-over. A second chance. A dollop of grace smothering golf’s otherwise ironclad legalism when it comes to counting every stroke.
Paul McCallister doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d need a mulligan in life. After all, the hard-charging businessman’s company, McCallister International, has made him a very wealthy, very successful man. His company’s core values? “Performance. Perfection. Profit,” he says at a corporate rally announcing a huge new initiative. “That’s how we win.”
Paul is a winner in the business world. But it’s come at significant cost. His devoted wife, Rebecca, still prays for reconciliation after five years of separation. And his twentysomething son, Jake, has little love for his workaholic father.
But Paul has little time to repair familial fences. For him, there’s only the next contract to conquer, the next multibillion-dollar conglomerate to partner with.
Next on his list of targets is an Asian businessman named Chao Wong. Connecting with him relationally involves participating in a nearby pro-am golf tournament.
Ever confident of his abilities in everything he does, Paul arrogantly steps up to tee off the first hole. But sometimes confidence can be misplaced, and his golf skills aren’t in the same league as his professional savvy. His first drive goes awry. And so do many of subsequent shots, landing everywhere but on the green: in the rough, in the sand, in the water and bouncing off trees.
Paul breaks a putter in two, his rage going viral online and on ESPN. Wong isn’t impressed. And Paul’s partner, pro golfer Tom Lehman, suggests perhaps Paul could use a bit of coaching from a local legend: Will Dunn, whom most folks just call “The Old Pro.”
Turns out that Will’s golf lessons have a lot more to do with the game of life … and the reality that no matter how hard we try, everyone needs a mulligan every now and then.
The Mulligan is, more than anything, a movie about grace—how we all need it, how deeply Paul McCallister resists it, both in its secular form and in more spiritual ones, as we’ll see below.
Paul’s drive to succeed has rendered him insufferably arrogant and virtually unteachable when we first meet him. But Will (played with octogenarian aplomb by actor/singer Pat Boone) has played more than a few rounds, metaphorically speaking, in the game of life. And he’s determined to help Paul come to grips with his need for a mulligan in life, despite the businessman’s fierce initial resistance to any suggestion that he needs help for anything.
Ever so slowly, the Old Pro’s gentle prodding gets underneath Paul’s thick emotional armor, often using incisive questions to prompt Paul to take an honest look at his life. “Where do you see yourself, not just in golf, but your whole existence, your life? Who are you?” Paul’s brusque response doesn’t deter the old mentor. “So, how do you see yourself?” Will persists. “When you look in the mirror, when you’re shaving, brushing your teeth, doing your morning ritual, what do you see?”
A bit later, Will tells Paul, “Keep asking where you see yourself, not just in golf, but in life. In fact, make an assessment of your life every day, and acknowledge the errors you may be making, and correct them.”
For much of the film, Paul finds the entire concept of a mulligan in golf abhorrent. It’s cheating, plain and simple. And to win in life, you have to play by the rules. We eventually learn that his drive to do just that came from his relationship with his own father, a drunk who advised him to cheat whenever possible to survive. Paul made a vow not to be like his dad, but one that has exacted collateral damage on his closest relationships with his estranged wife, Rebecca, and son, Jake.
As Will’s continual coaching and mentoring progress, his wisdom begins to penetrate Paul’s formidable defenses. Ultimately, Paul sees his need not just for a mulligan in golf, or even with his closest family members, but in his relationship with God as well.
The Old Pro’s nickname is an apt one indeed. Will skillfully uses questions to bring Paul’s relational failings to light. And, in time, those failures provide a natural bridge to talk about the concept of the mulligan in spiritual terms as well.
“God created all of us in His image to play His course,” Will says. “I call it the course less played. Life is God’s course. God’s game. And he made all the rules. … Not one of us can play a perfect game. Not one of us lives a perfect life to get to heaven.
“God requires a perfect round, and He knows not one us can measure up to that. So He sent his own son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins, our mistakes, and to give us a chance at a new life. Then, He takes our scorecard. He signs His own name to it, He erases our mistakes. All we have to do is attest to it, turn it in as our own.”
Throughout the film, Will’s nuggets of wisdom to Paul become increasingly more spiritual. Will tells him, “We gotta take time to thank God for the good things He does for us.” And when Paul isn’t sure he wants to believe, Will says, “You may not know Him. He knows you. He created you. And He very deeply loves you.”
And there’s this connection to the movie’s title and do-over theme: “The word mulligan has another meaning: grace. The Bible calls it unmerited favor. Which is just forgiveness. Forgiveness of your own and others’ mistakes and imperfections.”
Eventually, Paul responds to the message of forgiveness that Will has patiently laid out before him. Playing important roles along the way are his longsuffering wife, Rebecca, who’s never given up hope and prayed for Paul for years; his equally longsuffering administrative assistant, Harriet, who tolerates a great deal of Paul’s arrogance with grace and prays for him herself; and, eventually, even Jake, who initially says he hates his dad but also prays for him as well.
We see a kiss between Paul and Rebecca. A “trophy girl” at a motocross competition wears a short skirt.
A motocross accident leaves Jake under his motorcycle and unconscious. From a distance, the pileup doesn’t look terribly problematic. But we learn that Jake has suffered a concussion, a shattered ankle and hurt his clavicle, too. We see him broken and bandaged in the hospital following emergency surgery.
An older man trips and falls from a curb, then jokes that he’s OK. Paul breaks a putter and also repeatedly rams golf clubs into the ground in anger. We hear about how one character’s 2-year-old son drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool. There’s another death referenced in the film as well.
Paul (and later Will) both drive a rented Maserati recklessly.
A TV commentator exclaims, “Good Lord!” Someone says, “B.S.” Paul calls Will’s faith in God “malarkey,” which prompts the old man to chastise him gently for mocking his faith.
A number of meals include various alcoholic drinks. We see people holding cigars and pipes in multiple scenes, though no one is ever depicted actually smoking either.
A flashback shows that Paul’s father was apparently a heavy drinker, and a mean drunk at that.
A scene played for humor involves Paul trying to help Jake go to the bathroom after the latter’s accident and surgery. Jake asks Paul to be his “spotter,” since he’s wearing a neck brace and can’t see what he’s doing, as well as being unstable due to his cast. Someone proves duplicitous in a key business agreement.
The Mulligan, playing in theaters as a Fathom Event April 18 and 19, reminds viewers how desperately we need God’s grace. Paul is a stereotypical—and egotistical—self-made man. He’s earned his success, and he has little patience for anyone who doesn’t play by the rules and work as hard as he does.
But that drive has taken a terrible toll on his close relationships. It’s also made him insufferably arrogant and unteachable.
Until, that is, his public humiliation on a golf course leaves the emperor standing with a broken putter and no proverbial clothes. Will Dunn, a wizened old soul who practically oozes grace, gently helps a case-hardened businessman to see his failures clearly—and to see how desperately he needs a mulligan, a do-over, a generous helping of God’s grace.
Many of us have heard that message before. But whether you’ve been walking with Jesus for as many decades as actor Pat Boone has, or whether you’re not sure what you think about Christian faith and its offer of forgiveness in Christ, The Mulligan invites us to reflect on how deeply we need God’s grace and forgiveness.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.