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Perfect, Thanks to Mulligan

"Take a mulligan, Tim." The first time David offered, my son didn't know how to respond. What was a mulligan? Could it be a soda or snack food peculiar to the West? We'd just arrived in Colorado, having spent a wonderful night on Amtrak's Southwest Chief, the double-decker passenger train that runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. We'd gone to sleep gliding through the farmlands of Missouri, awakened in the endless corn of Kansas, and alighted, soon after breakfast, in Trinidad, on the High Plains. My good friends Bonnie and David picked us up and drove us to their ranch-style home at the base of the massive pair of mountains known as the Spanish Peaks.

It all seemed a little unreal, more so even than flying long distance. I still felt the train's rocking rhythm as we stretched our muscles on the nine-hole golf course David had laid out on several acres of their land. Tim had recently discovered the joys of thwacking a golf ball at a driving range near our home, and seemed to have a knack for it. And, like a few million other kids in America, he'd found a hero and role model in Tiger Woods. Golf was it.

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But today, Tim's putt on the first green missed the hole by a wide, un-Tigerlike margin.

"Take a mulligan, Tim," was David's suggestion. Seeing our puzzled looks, he explained that a mulligan was another chance - the opportunity to strike an errant drive or putt from your score, bring the ball back, and try again. Once we understood this, my son and I relied heavily on mulligans. Though Tim got several honest birdies, mulligans saved us from many a double or triple bogey.

THOUGH homemade, the course is plenty challenging and has a unique set of hazards. Indian Creek, with its weeds and cottonwoods, curves between greens; several balls fell in its overgrown sinuosity. Just over the barbed wire, hip-high pasture grass sways, ready to claim any balls that clear the fence.

The biggest hazard, for me, was the view. I found it hard to concentrate on the little white ball with the Spanish Peaks rising into the mobile sky. Their shapes and positions within the shifting clouds were never the same, two glances apart. At certain times of day, the sun illuminates a series of geologic dikes radiating down their sides, bringing these steep, rocky spines into breathtaking relief. To make matters worse, a dozen or so exquisite Peruvian horses pranced up and down a neighboring pasture.

While these distractions proved negligible for an 11-year-old with dreams of Tiger Woods's talent, my own game unraveled. Tim began scoring a much lower game, with and without mulligans.

Over the course of a five-day visit, we played plenty of golf, each of us drawn to the course for different reasons. Tim's game steadily improved, and one day over lunch he boasted to Bonnie that he'd scored 17 birdies. She was genuinely surprised and a little skeptical, knowing full well how much skill that implied. She eyed Tim sharply, but kindly. With four grown children of their own and now six grandchildren, she and David have a sixth sense for truth that's been stretched. With some prodding from me and David, Tim admitted to the help of mulligans for many - though not all - of his below-par scores.

Back on the course, I thought about our discussion, when Tim was out of earshot, on the philosophy of mulligans. In the game of golf, and in other contexts, they serve a good purpose, we'd agreed, if they weren't overused. Children beginning to learn a new skill need the encouragement of second tries. So do adults, I thought, as I brought one of my own sliced balls back to the tee for another go. At some point I'd need to draw the line and insist on both of us playing straight. But it wouldn't happen this week. With rain-laden clouds sifting around the mountains, and the Peruvian horses afloat in the green foreground, it seemed perfectly OK to take all the mulligans we wanted.

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