Origins of 'Birdie' and 'Eagle': How They Became Golf Terms

The specific time and place of birdie's birth is known

Illustration showing a little birdie knocking golf ball into cup
If only it had happened this way ... Phil Marden/Illustration Works/Getty Images

Which came first, the birdie or the eagle? In golf history, the scoring term "birdie" entered the golf lexicon first, around the dawn of the 20th century, and eagle soon followed. But do we know exactly when and where those golf terms arose? In the case of "birdie," yes.

'Birdie' Based on Early American Slang

Just to recap: A birdie in golf is a score of 1-under par on any given hole; an eagle is a score of 2-under par on a hole.

In American slang of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, the term "bird" was applied to anything particularly great or outstanding. "Bird" was the "cool" of its time.

So on the golf course, a great shot - one that led to an under-par score - came to be known as a "bird," which was then transformed into "birdie." The term birdie was in worldwide use by the 1910s.

And it was during a match at Atlantic City Country Club that birdie came into existence.

The Birth of 'Birdie' in Atlantic City

Who first used "birdie" on a golf course? Most sources point to Atlantic City Country Club in Atlantic City, N.J., as the place of origin. The USGA Museum cites the book Fifty Years of American Golf, published in 1936, which cites a match played at Atlantic City Country Club in 1899.

Atlantic City Country Club itself, however, says the match was in 1903, so that's the year we accept. One of the golfers in that match, Ab (Abner) Smith, is quoted in the book thusly:

"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.' "

So we can say that "birdie" was coined by Ab Smith and his fellow-competitors during a match at Atlantic City Country Club in 1903.

(Today, on the hole where it happened, a plaque commemorates the event.) The term immediately became common around that club, visitors to the club learned it and it spread out across the golf world from that single golf course in New Jersey.

'Eagle' Soon Followed 'Birdie' Into Existence

Unlike with birdie, we don't know the time and place that "eagle" entered the golf lexicon. But it was very soon after the creation of "birdie." The same Ab Smith who coined "birdie" said that he also recalled using "eagle" at ACCC soon thereafter.

Eagle was just a natural extension of the avian theme of birdie. What's better than 1-under? Two-under. What's bigger, grander, more majestic than a little birdie? An eagle. (And "albatross" later came along for the same reason. So once "birdie" was established as the term for 1-under par, avian terms for 2-under par and 3-under par were also adopted.)

Eagle, like birdie, is definitely of American origin. The terms spread first to American golfers, then to Canada, then across the pond. One of the earliest-known uses of "eagle" in the U.K. happened in 1919.

Sources: USGA Museum/British Golf Musuem

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