Golf History FAQ

What is the origin of the word ’golf?’
The word ’golf’ is not an acronym for anything. Rather, it derives linguistically from the Dutch word ’kolf’ or ’kolve,’ meaning quite simply ’club.’ In the Scottish dialect of the late 14th or early 15th century, the Dutch term became ’goff’ or ’gouff,’ and only later in the 16th century ’golf.’

The linguistic connections between the Dutch and Scottish terms are but one reflection of what was a very active trade industry between the Dutch ports and the ports on the east coast of Scotland from the 14th through 17th centuries.

Some scholars suggest that the Dutch game of ’kolf,’ played with a stick and ball on frozen canals in the wintertime, was brought by the Dutch sailors to the east coast of Scotland, where it was transferred on to the public linkslands and eventually became the game we know today.

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How did the terms ’birdie’ and ’eagle’ come into golf?
The term ’birdie’ originated in the United States in 1899. H.B. Martin’s Fifty Years of American Golf contains an account of a foursomes match played at the Atlantic City (N.J.) CC. One of the players, Ab Smith relates, "My ball... came to rest within six inches of the cup. I said ’That was a bird of a shot... I suggest that when one of us plays a hole in one under par he receives double compensation.’ The other two agreed and we began right away, just as soon as the next one came, to call it a ’birdie." In 19th-century American slang, ’bird’ referred to anyone or anything excellent or wonderful.

By analogy with ’birdie,’ the term ’eagle’ soon thereafter became common to refer to a score one better than a ’bird.’ Also by analogy, the term ’albatross’ stands for double eagle—an even bigger eagle!

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What is the origin of the word ’bogey?
The term ’bogey’ comes from a song that was popular in the British Isles in the early 1890s, called "The Bogey Man" (later known as "The Colonel Bogey March"). The character of the song was an elusive figure who hid in the shadows: "I’m the Bogey Man, catch me if you can."

Golfers in Scotland and England equated the quest for the elusive Bogey Man with the quest for the elusive perfect score. By the mid to late 1890s, the term ’bogey score’ referred to the ideal score a good player could be expected to make on a hole under perfect conditions. It also came to be used to describe stroke play tournaments—hence, in early Rules books we find a section detailing the regulations for ’Bogey Competitions.’

It was only in the late 1900s/early 1910s that the concept of ’Par’ started to emerge—this being the designated number of strokes a scratch player could be expected to take on a hole in ideal conditions. In this way par was distinguished from bogey. The term par itself is a standard term in sports handicapping, where it simply means ’level’ or ’even.’

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What are the origins of the term ’dormie?
Historically, the term dormie is derived from the French/Latin cognate ’dormir,’ meaning ’to sleep,’ suggesting that a player who is ’dormie’ can relax (literally, go to sleep) without fear of losing the match.

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Why do golfers shout ’Fore!’ when they hit an errant shot?
The word ’fore’ is Scottish in origin, and is a shortened version of the word ’before’ or ’afore.’ The old Scottish warning, essentially meaning "look out ahead," most probably originated in military circles, where it was used by artillery men as a warning to troops in forward positions. Golfers as early as the 18th century simply adopted this military warning cry for use on the links.

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What is the definition of a ’links’ course?
’Links’ is a term that refers to a very specific geographic land form found in Scotland. Such tracts of low-lying, seaside land are characteristically sandy, treeless, and undulating, often with lines of dunes or dune ridges, and covered by bent grass and gorse. To be a true links, the tract of land must lie near the mouth of a river—that is, in an estuarine environment. From the Middle Ages onward, linksland (generally speaking, poor land for farming) were common grounds used for sports, including archery, bowls and golf.

Because many of the early courses of Scotland were built on these common linksland, golf courses and links have forever been associated. The term ’links’ is commonly misapplied to refer to any golf course. But remember that a true links depends only on geography.

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What is the origin of the popular golf game called ’skins?’
As a format of golf gambling, ’skins’ has been around for decades, but really only became popular after the creation of "The Skins Game" in the 1980s. In other parts of the country, ’skins’ is also known as ’cats,’ ’scats,’ ’skats,’ or ’syndicates.’ Of these, ’syndicates’ seems to be the oldest term, going back at least to the 1950s, and possibly earlier. It has been suggested that ’skins,’ ’scats,’ etc. are simply shortened, simplified versions of the term ’syndicates.’

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Why are there 18 holes on a golf course?
The links at St. Andrews occupy a narrow strip of land along the sea. As early as the 15th century, golfers at St. Andrews established a customary route through the undulating terrain, playing to holes whose locations were dictated by topography. The course that emerged featured eleven holes, laid out end to end from the clubhouse to the far end of the property. One played the holes out, turned around, and played the holes in, for a total of 22 holes. In 1764, several of the holes were deemed too short, and were therefore combined. The number was thereby reduced from 11 to nine, so that a complete round of the links comprised 18 holes.

When golf clubs in the UK formally recognized the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews as the rule-making body for the sport in the late 1890s, it became necessary for many clubs to expand or reduce the length of their course to eighteen holes. Prior to this time, courses ranged in length from six holes to upward of 20 holes. However, if golfers were to play by the official R&A rules, then their appointed round would consist of 18 holes.

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Where does the word ’mulligan’ come from?
There is considerable debate about this topic, to say the least. There are several clubs and several people who have staked claims about the origin of the term ’mulligan.’

The story most widely accepted focuses on a gentleman named David Mulligan who played at the St. Lambert CC in Montreal, Canada during the 1920s. There are several versions of the David Mulligan story.

Mr. Mulligan was a hotelier in the first half of the century, a part-owner and manager of the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, as well as several large Canadian hotels. One story says that the first mulligan was an impulsive sort of event—that one day Mulligan hit a very long drive off the first tee, just not straight, and acting on impulse re-teed and hit again. His partners found it all amusing, and decided that the shot that Mulligan himself called a ’correction shot’ deserved a better named, so they called it a ’mulligan.’

Story two: Mulligan played regularly with a group of friends at St. Lambert, and in the morning he drove to pick up his golfing buddies. The road into the club was reportedly bumpy and windy and just sort of generally poor, with bridge of bumpy railroad ties. An extra shot was allotted to Mulligan, the driver of the car, on the first tee because he was jumpy and shaking from the difficult drive.

Story three: this story again identified a specific moment, citing a day when David Mulligan showed up late to the course, having scrambled to get out of bed late and get dressed and get to the course on time. He was frazzled on the first tee, hit a poor shot, and re-teed.

Another version of the ’mulligan’ story comes from the Essex Fells CC in N.J. This story is one of the latest, and may therefore be less credible. According to this version, the term was named after a locker room attendant at the club named John A. ’Buddy’ Mulligan, who worked at the club during the 1930s and was known for replaying shots, particularly on the first tee.

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Caddies and competitors in an early U.S. Open, ca. 1900.


Golf on the links in Scotland, ca. 1870.