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.”
In Goydos’ analysis, Mulligan has to make “two plus two equal five — to create synergy. It’s about understanding yourself and being yourself.” Mulligan compares himself to a general manager or head coach, but it’s safe to say that Joe Torre isn’t as clued in to Manny Ramirez’s inner life. The “VCC Boys,” as they’re known at the club, are family. Mulligan was a groomsman in Merrick’s wedding; he spent his post-surf work commute finding the right place for Tomasulo to get an MRI on a tweaked knee.
When he’s visiting a tournament, Mulligan will usually take a red-eye instead of an afternoon flight out of town. He believes that having dinner with, say, Mallinger and his girlfriend is as important to grasping his player’s mindset as practice-tee work — sometimes more so. Such an all-encompassing approach is, well, all-encompassing. Yes, Mulligan surfs four times a week when the waves are swelling — he’s competent if no big kahuna, and proud that he still surfs a short board at his age. “Surfing is the one thing where I can get away from golf,” he says. “In everybody’s wheel, you need to have something that gets you away from what you do.” That he can’t control when the waves come, or don’t come, must provide a measure of relief, too. Still, he works seven days a week regardless.
If it’s a huge commitment to be plugged in so that his players can be dialed in, the work — and the camaraderie among this good-natured fraternity — clearly animates him. He needs it as much as his players need him. “Jamie doesn’t have any kids, and he treats us like his kids in a way,” Mallinger says. “Beyond the coaching, he’s one of my best friends. He’s my psychologist, my golf coach, my friend. I can go to him with anything.”
There are also countless spokes to keep straight at Mulligan’s day job at VCC, where aspiring pros Merrick and Mallinger were granted the playing privileges they still retain. (So, too, Goydos, who used to work in the bag room; Tomasulo is a longtime member, a reliable source of grief-giving for his public course-bred pals.) Hank Haney needn’t keep 415 elite private-club members happy or 120 employees on-point. That the laid-back Californian in Mulligan still exists is a minor miracle. Yet there he is greeting a member in a late-model Bentley with a deadpan, “Nice Pinto.”
It also makes him an easy mark for more buttoned-up types. A teaching pro recalled first meeting Mulligan while following their respective players at a recent PGA Tour practice round. “He keeps saying, ‘Golden,’ after his guy’s shots,” the instructor recalls. “I’m, like, ‘Whatever, dude.'”
Mulligan’s success has left him indifferent to such impressions. At the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, he beat traffic by skateboarding from his hotel to the course’s teaching area. “[David] Leadbetter’s marching through with his video camera on his shoulder, and I’ve got a skateboard in my backpack,” Mulligan says.
In fact, Mulligan doesn’t use video in his teaching. He rarely watches ball flight because he’s so familiar with his students that scrutinizing their body action suffices. Plus, he’s always had the ability to “see where the club went in my mind’s eye, but not in video or still photography.”
“It feels like my heel’s on the ground for a split-second longer,” Merrick murmurs. He noodles another ball into position. “Sometimes my lower body gets into no-man’s land.”
“You were very defined in the desert,” replies Mulligan, referring to the 2009 Bob Hope Classic, where Merrick’s brilliant final-round 67 in near-hurricane winds helped him finish second. “Hey, do your Els impression.” Merrick grins and launches into a pitch-perfect Ernie Els imitation — his Anthony Kim impersonation is also killer — then hits another tight draw.
“You’re shallow because your levels are never changing,” Mulligan says. This seems to be a good thing. “That’s a nice right leg, Johnny.”
Their 20 minutes together is up. Mulligan gets into his golf cart and hightails it to the clubhouse. VCC’s centennial gala is two days away, and among a hundred other details he must make sure that the dance floor is big enough for all the members who want to boogie to the headliner he booked, Dionne Warwick. The evening will go flawlessly — the COO of everything is, as always, on it.
And that’s the story, Rory.