The coronavirus pandemic has hit a giant pause button on fans being able to watch golf on TV, and in some cases, even kept people off courses. But while we hunker down and hope for a speedy return to normalcy, we can also use this time as an opportunity to learn more about the game we love. Here’s our latest installment of “Did you know?”
Golfers around the world have Scotland to thank for inventing this great game, but the term “birdie” is actually an all-American term. Specifically, Atlantic City Country Club is where the fluttery phrase for shooting one under par came to be—and boy, do they let you know about it. Here’s the opening sentence when you visit the club’s website:
As one of America’s oldest and most prolific golf clubs, Atlantic City Country Club has been home to many firsts, including being the “Birthplace of the Birdie.”
Look, they even have a nice plaque commemorating it:
Atlantic City Country Club also claims to be the site of the first “eagle,” the first senior tour event, the first Ivy League Championship, and the first slots-and-shots member-guest. Kidding about the last one.
The origins of this conception vary slightly, but the gist is that during a round in 1903 Abner “Ab” Smith launched a long approach shot on ACCC’s par-4 12th hole (now No. 2) that wound up within kick-in range of the cup. The result caused one of the group’s members (Ab’s brother William and Pine Valley architect George Crump rounded out the threesome) to exclaim it was a “bird of a shot!” At the time, “bird” was slang for something pretty swell or really neat or whatever else they said at the turn of the 20th century.
Here’s how Jock Howard explained it in a 1991 issue of Golf Digest:
Towards the end of the Nineteenth century, bird was American slang used frequently to describe a person or thing of excellence, such as, ‘He is a perfect bird of a man.’”
Speaking of perfect birds of a man, this means it’s possible Crump is responsible for both the birdie and the creation of the country’s greatest golf course. That is quite the résumé.
Also of note was that the group was playing for a few bucks (obviously). According to Scottish Golf History, Ab said he should get double the money for an under-par score and somehow his playing partners agreed to these ad-hoc terms and a tradition was born.
As time went on, the story got better—as stories often do. Ab claimed it actually happened in 1899 and that he both made the birdie and said, “That’s a bird of a shot!” No self-esteem problems there! According to “The Book of the Birdie” by William Kelly, The Atlantic City Press added a fourth golfer to the group, A.W. Tillinghast, and legendary golf writer Charles Price wrote that Smith’s shot had “first struck a bird in flight.” So this tale about a bird also became a big fish story. Amazing.
In any event, the term “birdie” was coined, which, according to Price was an “abomination in the eyes of the British.” And more than a century later, like bird poop to the windshield of my car every time I park outside, it has stuck.