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Doctor of swing stitches up greens

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Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:01 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Even in the mid-morning summer heat, 98-year-old Dr. James Mulligan was ready to flash his swing on the driving range. The clubs were ready, stowed in a golf cart next to the spotlessly garaged Honda.

Twice each week, the 20-year member of El Conquistador Country Club joins his group of 90-somethings for a full round before others half his age have eaten breakfast.

Longevity doesn’t equal frailty here, however.

Tufts of eggshell white hair wisped around wires trailing from Mulligan’s ears—but only a chance medical career separated the youngster from a veiled hustle, while leaning forward to hear the doctor’s hushed voice.

“I was just too busy,” Mulligan said about why he came to the sport late. “I never had time.”

Two Thursdays back, the doctor bested his age by three strokes — shooting 95 during a sub-four-hour round that lasted too long in the opinion of Mulligan’s longtime partner Todd Strothied.

“We would’ve got finished earlier, except we had a group up ahead that were slowing us down,” Strotheid, 92, said. “So we were waved quite a few holes.”

That the trio wouldn’t suffer lackadaisical play syncs with Mulligan’s knocking of pet-peeve slowpokes. On the greens, shots within 18 inches of the cup get picked up, as Strotheid says, “they’re in the can.”

“Believe me. In his putting, he is deadly,” Strotheid said of the doctor’s short game. “He’s no slouch, I’ll tell you that.”

If ever, slouching flashed as only a momentary option for Mulligan.

An editorship of Brown University’s humor magazine afforded flirtations with a Hollywood comedy-writing career. Instead, Mulligan tested into Yale medical school — on a whim, after befriending a group of pre-meds.

Mulligan remembered his interview with the school’s director. The professor questioned applicants on their favorite literature to pompous stacks of obscure replies.

“I said, ‘Well, I like to read mystery detective stories,’” Mulligan said. “And he put his hands up and said, ‘Well, Jeez, so do I.’ So, I got accepted.”

The accidental physician graduated from Yale Medical in 1936 and accepted a five-year head-and-neck surgical residency at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University. Mulligan earned $40 per month as he rose to the rank of chief resident surgeon.

Those 44 patient-driven years of humanity kept Mulligan from the pastime that adorns his home and germinates daily next to a northward-facing window — oil painting.

A small sepia-toned portrait of his late wife and golf partner, Doris, hangs adjacent to Mulligan’s compact oak easel. Smooth-stroked, vibrant canvases of smiling Native American children display a brush technique unhindered by arthritis.

Every Christmas, Mulligan mails out 75 cards printed with his works to friends, including Strotheid. Queried, the artist tersely declared he hung up his easel after college because he “didn’t have time.”

Mulligan retired from medicine at age 70, in 1980, relatively green to the links. A flurry of golf-related traveling ensued, as he and Doris absorbed the finest courses that the Caribbean, Hawaii and all points between could offer.

The surgeon’s steady hands, ball-bearing swing and jeweled eyes earned him friends wherever he planted a tee. Living in Olympia, Wash., the latent natural sank three holes-in-one and carried a six-handicap for a couple months before settling in Oro Valley.

“And it’s deteriorated since then,” he smiled. “I can’t get the distance anymore.”

For the nonagenarian, solid pitch-and-chip skills are vital as aging muscles wane.

Mulligan’s drives tapered to around 150 yards in the last few years, but their compass-straight trajectory caught El Conquistador golf director Mark Oswald’s eye as he spied him on the range.

Oswald first heard of the doctor from pro-shop scuttlebutt when he assumed his post nine months ago. Lore of the amiable, yet emulous, linkster circulated the course on regular rounds.

Charmed as he appears, Mulligan takes his lumps much as he did throughout World War II, working 14-hour days all the while.

During a recent reseeding of the course, club staff confined golf carts to the pathway. Oswald said Mulligan refused any old-timers’ concessions and humped his clubs from buggy to tee — for 18 holes.

“He’s just quite the character,” Oswald mused. “And having the name ‘Mulligan,’ well that just fits it to a T.”

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