Fore! These Golf Terms Will Land You On The Green

For people outside of the world of golf, the language used in the game can be confusing. Bogey, fore, par—these and other words may or may not mean anything to you, but on the course, they’re the only way to understand what’s going on. And then there are the words that started with golf but have become more synonymous with other meanings, like stymie.

Before playing a round, or if you simply want to understand what’s going on while you watch it on TV, you first have to understand the context of these words.

 

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fore

There are few words in the lexicon of golf lingo that are as recognizable as fore. It’s a word that seems like it should always be shouted or typed with an exclamation point permanently attached to the end.

Fore is an interjection that golfers shout to warn that they’re about to hit the ball—usually hard and far—as a caution for anyone who may be in the danger zone.

There are a couple stories about how fore became the de facto golf ball warning. One is that golfers in the early days paid people called forecaddies to gather the balls so they weren’t lost. Forecaddie is a bit of a mouthful, so the thinking goes, but a simple fore got the idea across. Another origin story is that it comes from a military term that shots were coming so the front line should “beware before.” Finally, fore could just be a normalized shortening of before related to the definition of before as “in front; in advance; ahead.” Yelling fore, in this case, would be like a more urgent version of yelling, “look out ahead, I just hit a ball that may be coming your way.”

par

Par, like fore, is a word that even people who have never picked up a golf club use. In golf, par means “the number of strokes set as a standard for a specific hole or a complete course” (outside of golf, par means “a level of equality,” or “an accepted level or standard”). It was first recorded in 1615–25 and comes from Latin pār, meaning “equal.”

Whether you’re on the course or not, par is used in a similar way. Each hole has its own par—usually three, four, or five—which is the average number of swings it should take to finish. So for a par four, the golfer is trying to sink the ball in four strokes.

Off the golf course, you’re likely to hear par in terms like up to par (satisfactory). Finally, you might hear or use par for the course, which comes directly from golf but has come to mean that something is just as one might expect.

bogey

Bogey is just a couple letters away from the bogeyman, and the two words possibly have a closer relation than you might initially think. A bogey is when someone knocks the ball in one stroke over par. Two strokes is a double bogey, while three strokes over is a triple bogey.

The scoring wasn’t always done this way. In England, the original term for par was ground score. A Scottish golfer in the late 1800s, so the legend goes, said that another golfer who was hitting the ground score was a real bogey man, perhaps because of the popular song at the time "Hush! Hush! Hush! Here Comes the Bogey Man," which had the lyric "I'm the Bogey Man, catch me if you can." Bogey is a variant of bogy or bogle, which has been a term used for a “goblin” or “devil” since at least the 1600s.

It was a short-lived standard. By the early 1900s, par had replaced bogey as the standard term for the ground score.

birdie, eagle, and albatross

Whereas some golf terms rely on fanciful and fun-to-say words, others rely on the creatures that fly above us. When it comes to scoring, there are three “birds” to know in golf: birdie, eagle, and albatross. A birdie is one stroke under par, an eagle is two strokes under, and an albatross is three strokes under.

Birdie as a term meaning “little bird” dates back to the late 1700s. It’s a combination of bird and the diminutive -ie, which is used to form words that are usually informal (birdie, doggie) and endearing or familiar names (Millie, Susie).

The avian influence comes from what the word bird meant in early 20th-century slang: good. One origin story puts it that a golfer at a course in Atlantic City, New Jersey, hit a shot and nearly made it. He exclaimed “that was a bird of a shot.” After making it on the subsequent stroke one under par, he dubbed it a birdie. Eagle and albatross have less specific origins, but it follows that if a birdie is good, an eagle is even better as two strokes under par. An albatross is a rare bird to see, and three under par is a rare shot considering you’d have to hit a hole-in-one on a par four, or make it in two strokes on a par five.

hole-in-one

A hole-in-one is up there among the most self-explanatory golfing terms. It means, as you can guess, that you make the ball in the hole on the first stroke. There’s another term that’s less straightforward, though: ace. Whatever you call it, it’s rare and typically only happens on par three or very occasionally on a par four.

When it comes to golf, an ace (or ace in the hole) comes from the word’s slang meaning of "skilled." It’s seen in other sports as well in relation to a difficult move. In tennis, for example, a serve that isn’t returned is called an ace.

 

Want to elevate your tennis game? Check out these tennis words so you'll be serving verbal aces, at least.

mulligan

A mulligan is something only done outside of professional golf. The word means a stroke that doesn’t count. Essentially, it’s a do-over after a bad first shot. It was first recorded in 1900–05 as a proper name. Some stories posit that the term comes from a golfer named David Mulligan, who either teed up another ball by reflex after a bad first swing or did so on purpose after walking up to the ball with a few extra nerves.

Mulligan started as a golfing term but has migrated to other areas of life whenever a do-over is needed. It also has an unrelated meaning of mulligan stew, which is made with whatever leftover ingredients are available.

hazard

Hazard is an easy one to understand when it comes to golf. Just like you would avoid a road with a hazard sign at the start of it signaling a danger or risk ahead, golfers want to avoid a hazard, which simply means an obstacle, on the course. A hazard for the ball, if you will.

Today, hazards are typically man made. They’re there because in Scotland, original golf courses were made on land that wasn’t suitable for farming and had a number of obstacles like rivers, pits of sand, and dunes. These lands are called links. Man-made courses emulated the natural obstacles by adding sand pits, called bunkers, and ponds or other bodies of water called a water hazard.

hook and shank

Equipment and scoring aren’t the only parts of golf that get highly specific names. There are also names for the type of hit. A shank is a ball that’s hit with the base of the shaft that makes the ball angle to the right. A hook is similar, but it starts out like a good hit and then curves in the air. Right-handed players will hook to the left, and the opposite is true for left-handed players. Hooks can be done on purpose to avoid an obstacle, though they can also happen on accident. If you hit either a bad shank or a bad hook, you’ll want to take a mulligan if you can.

Both of these terms have uses outside of golf, of course. A shank is the part of the leg between the knee and ankle (lamb shanks are a common cut) or a slang word meaning "to cut or stab."

handicap

A handicap in golf, and other sports, is when a player has disadvantages or advantages added to level the playing field. A handicapped player might have a handicap of 10, for example, which would mean that they typically shoot 10 strokes over par. Someone who shoots at par is called a scratch golfer, while someone who has a handicap of 18 is called a bogey golfer because they consistently finish a hole one stroke over par. The golf handicap is used by multiplying your handicap by the course rating, dividing it by 113, and then subtracting that number from your final score.

A golfing handicap is a way for less skilled players to compete with more skilled players. Though handicap is another word that has a meaning outside of golf, it’s more respectful today to say someone has a disability (and ask them how they prefer to be identified) rather than say they’re handicapped.

stymie

Stymie is a word that started with golf but has migrated to other uses. It’s a noun that refers to the instance of when someone has a direct shot to the hole, but another person’s ball is in the direct line and is blocking the shot.

Today, it’s an outdated golfing term, and you likely won’t hear it during a game. Yet it’s become a more common term to hear used off the course as a verb. An evil villain’s plot is stymied by the hero, for example, or a politician’s bill is stymied by opposition.

green jacket

The green jacket is the most important piece of clothing in the game of golf. Not because it’s especially well-made or expensive, but because to get it you have to be among the best of the best. The only people with the green jacket (not just a green jacket) are people who are members of the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia and the winners of the annual Masters Tournament.

The jacket itself is pretty standard: it’s “Masters Green” (technically the color Pantone 342) with the club’s logo on the left side, and it is custom-made by the same tailor in Cincinnati each time. Winners of the Masters keep their jacket for a year and then return it to only wear when they’re at the club.

 

Now that you've got the lingo, dust off that driver and head over to our informative article about the Masters Tournament.