The Big Dog in Golf? Sometimes You Gotta Let Him Eat

Explaining the slang term and phrase, and their origins

Movie poster for Tin Cup, in which Kevin Costner's character used the phrase 'time to let the big dog eat.'
Detail from the movie poster for 'Tin Cup,' which helped popularize the 'big dog' nickname for the driver. Courtesy of Amazon

Do you know which golf club is the "big dog"? Big dog is a slang term for the driver. It's the biggest club in the bag, the longest, the one that hits the ball the farthest, the one that is the most fun to hit when you hit it right and the one that gets you into the most trouble when you hit it wrong.

The driver is the big dog of golf clubs. And sometimes, you have to let the big dog eat.

Yeah, what about that phrase: "Let the big dog eat"?

Does that phrase originate in golf?

A Movie Helped Popularize 'Let the Big Dog Eat'

"Big dog" is also part of an expression golfers sometimes use: "Time to let the big dog eat." That phrase might be uttered by a golfer who hasn't been using his driver, but decides to let 'er rip on a given hole. And that's the meaning of it in golf: Throw caution to the wind and unleash the biggest weapon in the bag.

But how did this expression become popular, both inside and outside golf?

Credit the 1996 Hollywood movie Tin Cup, which tells the story of a down-and-out West Texas driving range owner and former golf prodigy who plays his way back into the U.S. Open.

Kevin Costner played the golf pro and Rene Russo played a golf newbie who shows up at Costner's driving range and turns into his love interest.

During one scene, Costner (Roy) is encouraging Russo (Molly) to try hitting her driver, even though it's the most difficult club to master.

This exchange between the characters takes play:

Roy: Waggle it and let the big dog eat.
Molly: What big dog?
Roy: The driver, the No. 1-wood.
Molly: Oh, this is metal.
Roy: Woods are metal, the driver's known as the big dog. I'm just saying let him loose, let it rip, let the big dog eat.

Russo's character later repeats the phrase back to Costner in a different setting and scene.

Still later, the character of Romeo - Costner's caddie played by Cheech Marin, uses it again:

Romeo: Just hit the big dog ... up the chute.

Did 'Big Dog' and 'Let the Big Dog Eat' Originate in Golf?

Both phrases were in use within the golf world well before Tin Cup was released in 1996 - but there's no doubt the movie made the expressions almost universally known and understood by golfers.

As for the origins: In 2015, Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Penn's Linguistic Data Consortium, wrote about "let the big dog eat" on the Language Log blog. Prof. Liberman wrote:

"One source for 'Let the Big Dog Eat' is a slogan used for decades by fans of the Georgia Bulldogs football team. A 'Let the Big Dog Eat' bumper sticker is mentioned in a Gaffney, N.C. newpaper from 1983."

The school's sports teams are known as the Georgia Bulldogs, or "Dawgs" for short, and "Let the Big Dawg Eat!" merchandise related to University of George sports teams, particularly the football team, remain common today.

The term "big dog," meaning the biggest, baddest of something, or the leader of a group, has been around much longer than that.

I think it's a safe bet that the phrases "big dog" and "let the big dog eat" did not originate in golf.

And although they were used in golf prior to Tin Cup, it is the movie that popularized the phrases, both inside and outside of golf, spreading them to a wider audience.

Just remember: The "big dog" is your driver, and "letting the big dog eat" means hitting driver when you've been playing more cautiously leading up to that moment, or on a hole on which hitting driver is taking a risk.

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