Q&A: ‘Birdie, bogey, eagle, FORE!’ Golfing terms explained!

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the golf war…

Q: Hi AWC, did you have a good holiday?

A: Lovely thanks. You?

Q: I played a lot of golf. 

A: Oh, we didn’t realise you played.

Q: Very regularly!

A: You have a handicap then?

Q: I certainly do. Any hole with a windmill – I always struggle with those ones. Or a shortcut tunnel… I’m tempted every time, but end up missing.

A: Ahhh… gotcha. Miniature golf. 

Q: Yep. Although today I actually have a golf question about the bigger, longer version of the game.

A: If it’s whether the 19th hole counts toward your score, the answer is no.

Q: Haha, not that.

A: If it’s related to tigers or woods, we’re also out.

Q: Don’t be silly. I want to know why golfers shout “FOUR!” when they hit the ball. Are they announcing how many shots they expect to take?

A: Well, no.

Q: Why then?

A: For starters, it’s actually “FORE!” they are shouting, not FOUR. And it’s to warn the players in front that they have hit a wayward shot and to look out.

Q: Ohhhh okay. But why “FORE!” and not “duck!” or “watch out!”??

A: No one’s entirely sure, but the most obvious theory is because “fore” means “in front of”. It’s a quick and easy way to warn the players up ahead. 

Q: A form of “foreplay“, you might say? Hrrr hrrr hrrr.

A: Hilarious. Anyway, another theory is that it was called to warn the “forecaddie” – someone who used to be employed to walk up ahead and spot the ball, as golf balls were once a very expensive commodity to lose. 

Q: It’s hard to lose them at my course. They’re usually fluorescent and stay within the side walls…

A: By the way, “caddie” comes from the French word “cadet” and can also be spelt “caddy”, although that spelling is usually reserved for a box/container like a “tea caddy”. 

Q: Fascinating! What about the name “golf” itself? Isn’t it an acronym?

A: Nooo it’s not! The internet seems to have birthed this myth around 1997, spouting some silly Country Club nonsense that it stood for “Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden”. It doesn’t.

Q: So where DID it come from then?

A: It seems to have entered English in the mid 1400s, arriving first in Scotland – famous for old golf courses like “St Andrews“ – originally as “gouf” and likely from an earlier Middle Dutch word “colf/colve” meaning: stick, club, bat. It was very much an elite sport until the 1800s, which is when the verb “golf” also first appeared. For example, “I golf with Charles and Camilla on Sundays”.

Q: Fascinating.

A: By the way, the term “golf widow” (a wife whose husband is always off golfing) might sound quite modern but was first termed all the way back in 1890! In fact a lot of golfing terms appear to have emerged in the 1890s.

Q: Such as?

A: “Par” for starters – your expected number of shots per hole – either 3, 4 or 5 shots. “Par” is the Latin for “equal”. If you are “one over par”, then you shot one more than expected and it’s called a “bogey”.

Q: Sounds green and disgusting.

A: Well you’re typically on the green when you get one and yes, they can be disgusting, depending on your skill level. You can also score a double- or triple-bogey if you’re two or three shots over.

Q: That’s one full handkerchief!

A: Indeed. In this context, it appears it has a popular British music-hall tune of the time to thank for its existence. The tune was “Hush, Here Comes the BogeyMan” – and it became a famous retort when trying to outplay a course’s “ground score” – the par. If you didn’t stay ahead of the par, the bogey man caught you!

Q: How utterly ridiculous!

A: It’s a ridiculous sport, after all. Meanwhile, if you score one BETTER than par, you are said to have scored a “birdie”.

Q: Ah yes, so what’s the story with that? Another hit on the 1890s mixtape?

A: Haha, no. In fact, from here we get a bit later and a lot more American with our etymologies. The name “birdie” originated around 1903, originally as “bird” – which had been around in American slang since the 1830s as meaning “exceptionally clever or accomplished”. 

Q: It is rather clever if you get a birdie.

A: So, do you know what two shots under par is called?

Q: Easy. A double birdie!

A: No, that would be too obvious. Unlike the bogeys, where you want to forget they ever happened, these achievements were worth bragging at the 19th hole (the clubhouse bar) about – so each gets a unique name.

Q: Is there at least some kind of theme?

A: There is indeed. It’s all about birds! Two under par is called an “eagle” – that most majestic of birds, soaring through the air like a well-struck golf ball, before swooping down to its prey (preferably near the flag). It dates from 1908 and seems to be simply because it soars higher than a birdie.

Q: Wait, isn’t an eagle a type of birdie?

A: Don’t overthink it. By the way, both of these are credited to an Atlantic City golfer named AB Smith.

Q: AB Smith? Sounds like they just made up the first name they could think of! Did he take credit for “three under par” also?

A: He did not. This rare feat is known as an “albatross”. Originally it was called a “double eagle” but that became a little confusing, so the British coined the term in the late 1910s, perhaps because seeing an albatross is quite rare – just like hitting 3-under-par!

Q: Intriguing! So what do you call it if you get it in the hole in one shot?

A: A “hole in one“.

Q: Yeah, that. What do you call it?

A: You call it a “hole in one“!

Q: Oh. Okay, that’s simple. 

A: Apparently, according to America’s National Hole-in-One Registry (yes, it’s a real thing!), the chances of hitting a hole in one are 1 in 12500.

Q: The poor golfer who had to calculate that!

A: Haha.

Q: At my golf course, if you get a hole in one on the 18th hole, you get a voucher for a free ice-cream and a round of laser-tag.

A: Yeah, that’s probably not happening at St Andrews…

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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