From bogey to blow up — the origin of golf terms we use

When I reported the albatross recorded by Josh Graham recently, I wondered how “the albatross” as a golf phrase came about. Then I realized that I didn’t have a clue where any of the terms – par, birdie, eagle, bogey etc. came from. So I did a little digging (don’t worry, I called first) and here is what I found.

“Bogey” was the first stoke system, developed in England at the end of the 19th Century. Mr. Hugh Rotherham, secretary of the Coventry Golf Club conceived the idea of standardizing the number of shots on each hole that a good golfer should take, which he called the “ground score.”

During a competition using this scoring system, a Mr. C.A. Wellman exclaimed to the secretary of the host club that “this player of yours is a regular Bogey man.” This was probably a reference to an Edwardian music hall song “Hush! Hush! Hush! Here Comes the Bogey Man”, which was popular at the time. The ground score became known as the Bogey score.

If this is true, a bogey was once considered the preferred score for good golfers, which gives many of us duffers much more pride in our game.

The term par is derived from the stock exchange term that a stock may be above or below its normal or “par” figure. In 1870, Mr. A. H. Doleman, a golf writer, asked the golf professionals David Strath and James Anderson, what score would win “The Belt”, then the winning trophy for “The Open”, at Prestwick, where it was first held annually from 1861 to 1870. Strath and Anderson said that perfect play should produce a score of 49 for Prestwick’s twelve holes. Mr. Doleman called this Par for Prestwick and subsequently Young Tom Morris won with a score of two strokes “over par” for the three rounds of 36 holes.

Although the first noted use of the word “Par” in golf was in Britain and predates that of bogey, today’s rating system does not and the Par standard was not further developed until later. The American Women’s Golf Association began to develop a national handicapping system for women and it was largely in place by the end of the Century. The Men’s Association, founded in 1894, followed suit a few years’ later.

In 1911, the United States Golf Association of the day laid down the following very modern distances for determining par:

Up to 225 yards Par 3.

225 to 425 yards Par 4.

426 to 600 yards Par5.

Over 601 yards Par 6.

As golf developed, scores were coming down, but many old British courses did not adjust their courses or their bogey scores, which meant good golfers and all the professionals were achieving lower than a bogey score. This meant the U.S. had an up-to-date national standard of distances for holes, while the British bogey ratings were determined by each club and were no longer appropriate for professionals. The Americans began referring to one over par as a bogey, much to the British chagrin.

I found the following paragraph to be quite interesting.

“By 1914, British golf magazines were agitating for a ratings system similar to the U.S. However the Great War 1914-1918 intervened and it was not until 1925 that a Golf Unions’ Joint Advisory Committee of the British Isles was formed to assign Standard Scratch Scores (SSS), to golf courses in Great Britain and Ireland. Today, this committee is known as the Council of National Golf Unions (CONGU). It is the golf unions of each country (not the Royal and Ancient) who determine Pars and Handicapping.”

I told you it was interesting, if not a little confusing. Perhaps each golfer should be allowed to decide what “par” should be at each course. I think about 82 for each round sounds about right

The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms (1993) believes that “birdie,” meaning a score of one stroke under par on a given hole comes from the 19th century American slang term “bird”, meaning anything excellent.

The Country Club in Atlantic City lays claim to the first use, as mentioned on the USGA website. In 1962 the U.S. Greenkeepers’ Magazine reported a conversation with Ab Smith. He recounted that, in 1898-99, he and his brother, William P. Smith, and their friend, George A. Crump, who later built Pine Valley, were playing the par-4 second hole at Atlantic City, when Ab Smith’s second shot went within inches of the hole. Ab Smith said “that was a bird of a shot” and claimed he should get double money if he won with one under par, which was agreed. He duly holed his putt to win with one under par and the three of them thereafter referred to such a score as a “birdie.” The Atlantic City Club dates the event to 1903.

It does not surprise me that a bet was involved.

“Eagle,” a score of two under par for a given hole, was clearly the extension of the theme of birds for good scores from a “birdie.” It would be natural for American golfers to think of the eagle, which is our national symbol. A score of two under par is, in some ways, a “big birdie” and an Eagle is a big bird. Ab Smith said that his group referred to two under as an “eagle.”

From there, the “bird” theme continued. Three under Par is a very rare score and an albatross is a very rare bird, and now three under par is generally referred to as an “albatross.” However, nobody knows exactly when the term was coined and it appears to be quite recent. As late as April 8, 1935, a day after making an albatross on the par-5 15th hole at Augusta in the Masters, Gene Sarazen referred to his shot as a “dodo.”

Personally, I think the bird theme is a little too much, or should I say “for the birds”. Maybe we could use beagle instead of eagle. My dog would be so proud.

So far no particular terms for 2 or 3 or more-over par have become standard. They are just double and triple Bogeys. Some golfers use the term Buzzard for a double Bogey although my friends use a little stronger language. Depending upon how good you are, anything 7, 8 or 9 will be a “Blow-up” or a “Disaster.” Again, my buddies are a little more colorful in their terminology!

It seems clear that golfing terms came into popular use in much the same way new words are being invented and used on the Internet. If they sound good, people start using them. What we do not hear about are the terms that never made it because they did not catch on. Only the future will tell which of the terms we invent will still be being used in a hundred years time.

By the way, the historical information I just provided for you was found on the Internet, ergo, it must be true. For proof, let me just say – uh, bonjour!

Al Stephenson is The A-T’s golf columnist.

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