NCG’s Golfing Glossary: The origins of the humble birdie

In this week's golfing glossary the bird really is the word

Here at National Club Golfer, we’re the publication for the everyday player and so we’ve taken it upon ourselves to give you a step-by-step introduction to the wonderful world of the golfing lexicon.

Sometimes the most obvious terms have the most interesting story, and the four hours it takes to complete a round is going to require some rather innovative conversation starters.

Take a look at this week’s golfing glossary and the next time you astound your partners with a birdie, you can really knock their socks off by telling them how the term came about.



Word: Birdie


What I think it means:

No feigned ignorance this morning, I just chose this word because I’m interested to hear its origin story – where did the word ’birdie’ actually come from and what is the first recorded use of it?
‘I said "That was a bird of a shot"’ So we’ll skip through these bits…

Birdie is a score on a hole that is one under par. Which in itself is an interesting phrase – in everyday life if you say something is ’under par’ you’d expect it to be less than good. But in golf that’s what you’re aiming for? Weird.

Birdies are a good thing, no doubt. And if you’re playing with me they’re a rarity.

(I got one on the 16th last weekend at South Cliff in Scarborough, but that was via a hugely-fortuitous bounce off a tree which chucked the ball back on to the fairway. It was on my way back from being three down with four to play to winning the match, so my playing partner was not happy.)


I was, of course, gracious in victory

Dictionary definition: 

A score for a hole that is one less than par


Use it in a sentence: 

“Ab faced a 30-footer for birdie, while Bill had lost his approach right of the green”


According to the USGA, the phrase ’birdie’ to describe a score of one-under came about at the tail end of the 19th Century.

’Bird’ was the cool of its day, used to describe all manner of things that were great.

And so to the Atlantic City Country Club in 1903.


Ab Smith was playing a round with his brother William and friend Greorge Crump, who later built Pine Valley. They were playing the par-four second when our Ab struck a real doozie of a shot.

He later recalled: “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.”

There’s even a plaque to mark the hole where it took place…


We’re going to have to take Abs word on this, but it’s funny how these things catch on and in 1913 famous golf writer Bernard Darwin wrote “It takes a day or two for the English onlooker to understand that … a ’birdie’ is a hole done in a stroke under par.”

The avian theme continued and an ’eagle’ followed birdie (Ab Smith again taking the credit), with ’albatross’ arriving later on the scene.

Which made me think – what other Victorian slang should be translated on to the golf course?



A face with a massive grin on it. 

The uncontrollable smile you get after sinking a birdie?



The sort popularised by John Daly perhaps?


‘Those socks are a bit rascal Walter’

“Bags o’ mystery” 

Sausages, so named because you don’t know what’s inside. 

A golf bag with a mix and match set of clubs inside?

“Shoot into the brown” 

To fail. 

To strike mud rather than your target


‘Can’t we go inside until someone invents Gore-tex?’

“Tickle ones innards” 

A drink. 

A trip to the halfway house?

“Tight as a boiled owl” 

To be drunk. 

Stayed in the halfway house too long?



Hats on indoors! What is the world coming to?

Thanks to Luke Lewis at BuzzFeed for those definitions.


What this actually means: 

People have been playing better than you and shooting birdies while you stumbled to a six for a very, very long time.

Also, no amount of ‘banter’ that we can come up with today compares to the sledging the Victorians must have given each other out on the course.


If this piece has whetted your appetite for golfing terminology, check out last week’s golfing glossary. 

We uncovered what is actually meant by the term ‘USGA greens’. You can read all about it be clicking here.


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