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Talking the talk: How golf’s terminology came to be

Phil Mickelson reacts following his tee shot

Phil Mickelson reacts following his tee shot at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C., on May 6, 2018. Credit: Getty Images / Jared C. Tilton

First of all, it’s not the “boogeyman.” It’s the “bogey man.”

The American slang some parents used in the 1950s to threaten their misbehaving children with being carried off by some sort of hobgoblin actually dates back to the 1800s in golf terminology.

In the 1890s, there was a popular song in Scotland titled, “Hush! Hush! Hush! Here comes the Bogey Man,” according to So, golfers in that era figured they were playing against “Mister Bogey” in terms of making the best score on a hole. That was adopted as the standard score for a hole during that era.

At approximately the same time, the concept of “par” also came into vogue. As far back as 1870, golf writer A.H. Doleman asked what the ideal score would be for the Open at the 12-hole course at Prestwick in Scotland. Pros agreed 49 should be the standard. Young Tom Morris won with two-over par for three rounds, totaling 36 holes.

In 1893, the Ladies Golf Association in Great Britain adopted “par,” a stock market concept, as the standard score for a hole, and the Men’s Golf Association followed suit a year later, a clear case of gender equality long before women ever were permitted to play at St. Andrews. Yet, the concept of “par” wasn’t adopted universally in Great Britain until 1925.

Meanwhile, the United States Golf Association in 1911 ruled the maximum distances for a par 3 would be 225 yards, 425 for a par 4, 600 for a par 5 and 601-plus for a par 6. Technically, those distances haven’t changed much. The longest distance for a par 3 now is 250 yards, 470 for a par 4 and 690 for a par 5. But the USGA now exceeds the 250-yard limit for a par-3 and the 470-yard limit for a par-4 in championship competition.

In fact, five holes on the front nine at Shinnecock Hills and three on the back nine exceed the normal yardage limit for par. A fourth hole on the back nine, the 468-yard par-4 12th is just two yards short of the normal limit for a par-5, and the par-5 16th hole has been extended to 616 yards.

Despite those lengths, there still will be plenty of “birdies” and maybe a few “eagles.” The term “birdie” — one under-par — stems from popular slang in the early 1900s. If something was considered good or great, it was called “bird.”

Applying the term to a one-under-par score might have come from general usage, but the Country Club of Atlantic City lays claim to the original when A.B. Smith and his brother William Smith played with George Crump, who later built Pine Valley in New Jersey, one of America’s iconic courses. A.B. Smith hit his second shot within inches of the second hole and called it “a bird of shot.” From then on, they called a one-under-par score a “birdie.”

Having established the “bird” motif for sub-par scores, it wasn’t long until a two-under-par score evolved into “eagle,” the bird Americans associate with patriotism. This became common usage in Britain by 1919.

But a three-under-par score is called an “albatross.” This continues the bird theme, but it is considered a British term. The first known reference was in 1929 after the development of steel-shafted clubs made such a thing possible.

Golf really is a sport with a language known only to its practitioners. Some other terms and their definitions:

Bunker: On seaside courses, sands mounded and were shaped into “hazards” known as “bunkers.” They appeared in the 1812 Royal & Ancient Rules of Golf.

Fairway: As far back as 1744, the course proper was referred to as “fair green.” But there were no lawnmowers, so the main path to the hole was referred to as the “fairway” even though it was overgrown, a term Scottish fishermen used for a navigable channel.

Links: A true “links course” is built on sandy soil between the sea and land. The name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “hlinc,” dating to 931 A.D. Shinnecock Hills is not true linksland. It was more wooded, but the USGA cut down several trees. The course is more open and exposed to wind than the last U.S. Open at Shinnecock in 2004.

Golf: The first recorded mention, according to was in 1457 as “gouf,” a forbidden stick and ball sport. The Dutch had a word “kolf,” meaning a bat or club. When Dutch sailors reached Scotland, they played a game on linksland similar to what they played on icy canals that evolved into modern golf.

Mulligan: Hotelier David Mulligan, who ran the Biltmore in New York City and several major Canadian hotels, was a member of St. Lambert C.C. in Montreal and was famous for re-teeing on the first hole after poor drives. His friends began calling that practice a “mulligan,” and it stuck.

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