Jamie Mulligan, the most successful coach you've never heard of, sits on an upended range bucket, wearing sleek Prada shades, a snazzy white dress shirt and pinstriped suit pants. He looks less like a golf guru than a stylish G-man.
"That was a nice pinot," Mulligan says.
His student swings.
"I like that shock-absorber look with your legs," Mulligan continues, then segues back to the wine: "It was better the next day."
The vino in question was a gift from the player in front of him, John Merrick. Merrick had two top-10 finishes in the 2009 majors yet still gets confused with John Mallinger, who tied for third at last year's Players Championship. Mallinger is another longtime Mulligan disciple, as is their mutual buddy and fellow Long Beach, Calif., resident, Peter Tomasulo, a Tour rookie in '09.
"Feel like you're peeling Velcro with that right foot," Mulligan adds. Merrick who notes that "Jamie and I have been through so many levels of working on things it's almost like we have a different vocabulary" nods and smoothes another 7-iron. Time oozes along.
Befitting his surname, Mulligan, 49, is two men in one. There's the Jeff Spicoli side, a surfer dude with quirky lingo who shuns videotape and once skateboarded to a U.S. Open. Then there's the Gordon Gekko side, a charismatic, 24/7 manager whose title at Long Beach's Virginia Country Club chief operating officer is as unusual to golf as it is appropriate.
The former speaks of his "soulful relationship with the ocean" and prefers greetings like "Where we at, Matt?" or "What's the deal, Neil?" The latter character is proud of pioneering the use of high-tech headsets in golf-course operations, uses his black Porsche SUV as a mobile office and favors the word "expeditiously," as in, "Let's get that done expeditiously."
Mulligan's iconoclastic teaching approach balances both aspects of his personality. Against huge odds, it has engineered the rise of three Tour pros who've been with him since they were wet behind the ears (Merrick at 12, Mallinger and Tomasulo as college freshmen). Old friends Paul Goydos and John Cook also call him a trusted advisor. "To take all those kids to the Tour," Cook says, "I don't think there even are odds for that." Says Goydos: "Jamie's figured this thing out. I don't think there's a Tour pro out there who couldn't spend a year with Jamie and not end up a better player Tiger Woods included."
Except, as Goydos and Mulligan's other charges know, spending a year with the coach is no more an option than having an older brother for a year.
When Mulligan was 13, his father, Jim, took a job as an aerospace engineer with Rockwell International, which in the summers required a move to Palmdale, Calif., away from Jamie's beloved beaches. A talented multi-sport athlete, he started to play golf every day and improved rapidly, eventually playing for Division I Long Beach State. His early teenage years produced a fundamental insight. "I had an epiphany it was a sport everyone tries too hard at," he recalls. "The less you try, the better you do. You have to trust your eyes and be natural."
The requisites of a teaching career would mean learning what he calls "the x's and o's." It proved in many ways a diversion. "In my evolution, I probably confused myself learning the technical part and had to decipher all that back out," he says. "I see things now the way I did when I was 13."
Mulligan does have some basic mechanical tenets. Economy of movement. A big-muscle emphasis. No impact keys. ("The swing is a journey, not a destination," he says.) But he stresses process over method: technique is what Mulligan calls a single spoke in the wheel. "Our job is to keep all the spokes straight," Mulligan says. "I used to think I could teach any Tour player. But then I realized I could only teach them to hit the ball better, or putt better. You have to be able to coach the wheel, and that involves a lot of time. The relationship goes much past the golf course but rebounds to the golf course."
Mulligan's task is to observe his guys when they're playing well and not so well, and then figure out what's different. Goydos, for example, credits his advisor for pointing out that when he had last putted well he was watching his playing partners putt while awaiting his turn instead of fiddling with his own stroke. "I needed to return to the big picture," Goydos says. "It's an attitude I took into my whole game: go do your work, be prepared and quit worrying. I had my best summer ever [in 2009]."
That's not exactly Dave Stockton telling Phil Mickelson to reintroduce the forward-press; it's both a putting tip and more than a putting tip. Likewise, golf and non-golf spokes impact pros' games: for Mulligan, the personal and professional are inseparable. Consider another one of Mulligan's players, whom the coach preferred not to identify. His spokes, per Mulligan, are now "spirituality, fitness, nutrition, relationship, family, one routine key, one practice putting key, and fun there used to be 80 spokes. We haven't added a new one in five years."