The Origins of Golf Terminology

Terms like birdie, eagle, and albatross are used from Nevada to Malaysia, but their origins are a mystery to many. Many people don't know the history of condor, mulligan, and links. Even the background of the word golf is widely misapprehended.

So where does the name golf come from? Not from an acronym for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden!" The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers the first usage in 1457, and not only were acronyms not being made in the fifteenth century, but up until the late nineteenth century the spelling was variously golf, gouff, goiff, goff, gowff, goif, or golph.

The USGA proposes derivation from the Dutch kolf or kolve, meaning "club," passed to the Scottish by the trade between the Netherlands and ports on the eastern coast of Scotland. But the OED notes this theory and dismisses it, based on the fact that the Scottish game is mentioned in the historical record long before the Dutch game and no Scottish version of the word begins with a k (or even a c).

Although the closest we can get to the source of the word golf may be "of obscure origin," we can do better for some other golf terms.

Why Not All Golf Courses Are Links

Since some golf courses are called links, some people think the terms are synonymous. But they aren't.

The term links refers to a particular Scottish landform--low-lying, sandy land beside the sea with few trees and the undulating profile often seen with sand dunes. This is linksland, which was useless for farming and therefore an acceptable place to play sports in the Scottish Middle Ages.

With this background we can see that, contrary to what many dictionaries say, not all golf courses can be called links. Links are properly defined as golf courses built on sandy ground near the seashore. You'll remember the distinction next time you see the world-famous Pebble Beach Golf Links on TV.

Scoring Terminology

The order and discipline of golf--which has, for example, decisions with identifiers like "34-1b/1.5"--seems to all fly away when golfers discuss scoring. Where did the birdie come from?

According to the USGA, golfer Ab Smith, playing in 1899 in Atlantic City, was delighted with a shot that landed less than six inches from the hole and exclaimed, "That was a bird of a shot." The rest of his foursome agreed that a one-under-par hole would henceforth be called a birdie.

An eagle, which refers to a two-under-par hole, was chosen because it's a bigger bird. And so on, with albatross, or double eagle, for three under par on a hole, and condor, also called double albatross or triple eagle, for four under par. Since the condor is the largest bird in the Western Hemisphere, you can't do any better than that!

The Infamous Mulligan

You're unlikely to hear the term mulligan on a golf broadcast because it refers to a practice that is used only in casual golf, and then, only when players agree and the conditions are right.

The practice is named after a hotelier named David Mulligan who frequently played golf. He either (a) impulsively re-teed after a particularly crooked long drive in his first attempt or (b) was awarded an extra shot by his group because he brought them to the links over a particularly bumpy, windy road and was shaky afterwards.

Today, a mulligan, also called a breakfast ball, lunch ball, or Sunday ball, may be used if there is time and everyone in the group agrees.

So now if you read a headline like the one from the 2010 Masters, "Mickelson rouses Masters with eagle-eagle-birdie," you'll know that Mickelson made back-to-back eagles. He was only the third person to ever make two eagles in a row at the Masters, and he went on to win the tournament.

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Oxford University Press. (1971). The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 1. New York: Oxford University Press. (p. 283). PGA Sports Daily. (2010, April 10). Mickelson rouses Masters with eagle-eagle-birdie. Retrieved from USGA. (n.d.) Rules and decisions: 34-1b/1.5. Retrieved from USGA Museum. (n.d.) Golf history FAQ. Retrieved from

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