The Albatross in Golf: Explaining This Rare Bird's Meaning and Origin

A mollymawk, a type of albatross, in flight
An albatross (this one a medium-sized variety called a mollymawk) flies over open water. In golf, an albatross is equal to a double-eagle. Dianne Manson/Getty Images

In golf, "albatross" is a term for scoring 3-under par on an individual hole.

Yes, albatross is another word for a double eagle - the two terms are identical in meaning. But, as we'll see below, albatross is the more widely used term.

Albatrosses - save for holes-in-one on par-5s, which are nearly (but not quite) non-existent - are the rarest scores in golf. Albatrosses are far more rare than aces.

The Scores That Result in an Albatross

Remember that "par" is the number of strokes an expert golfer is expected to need to complete the play of a hole.

And each hole on a golf course is assigned a par rating. With that in mind, a golfer gets to claim an albatross by:

Par-6 holes are rare in golf, but they do exist. So you can also make an albatross by scoring 3 on a par-6. Albatrosses on par-3 holes are impossible.

How Rare Are Albatrosses in Golf?

Very rare. We explore this question in more depth in our article, "What are the odds of making an albatross?," but consider these facts:

  • In the entire history of The Masters, there have been only four albatrosses scored (they are listed on our Masters Records page);
  • In the U.S. Open, only three albatrosses have ever been recorded (listed in the US Open FAQ);
  • And over the first 60 years of the LPGA Tour's history, a total of only 30 albatrosses were scored.

Origins of the Golf Use of 'Albatross'

You know what an albatross is in golf, but why that word?

How did "albatross" come to be used as the word for 3-under par on a hole?

It was simply in keeping with the already established avian theme of terms applied to below-par golf scores. Birdie, for 1-under par on a hole, came first. Eagle, for 2-under par, evolved next. (See The Origins of Birdie and Eagle in Golf for more about that.)

Scores of 3-under par on a hole are rare today, but were even rarer in the early part of the 20th century, when, because of equipment limitations, golfers generally hit the ball shorter distances. So a term for the score of 3-under might not even have been considered necessary for a long time.

According to ScottishGolfHistory.org, the earliest use of albatross, in its golf sense, in print occurred in a British newspaper in 1929. The British Golf Museum, meanwhile, says that "albatross" became commonly used by golfers only in the 1930s.

But again, why albatross? The albatross is a bird, of course, and some albatrosses are quite large with impressive wingspans. Perhaps golfer and U.S. Open winner Geoff Ogilvy said it best: "It (an albatross bird) is grand, which is what describes the shot." (The shot being the one the golfer holed out with to make the score.)

Double Eagle vs. Albatross

The two terms are identical in meaning, but where are they used? This is easy: "Double eagle" is the preferred term in the United States, "albatross" is used almost everywhere else.

Why "double eagle" came to be the commonly used term in the U.S. probably dates to the 1935 Masters. That's where Gene Sarazen hit a shot that is still among the most famous in golf history, a par-5 hole-out from 200-plus yards on the 15th hole of the fourth round for a double eagle (excuse me, albatross) that helped propel him to victory.

In the American newspaper articles the next day, the shot was called a double eagle. And that term gained primacy in American golf over "albatross."

Outside the United States, however, albatross is used almost exclusively - except when golf fans in other countries hear American golfers or golf broadcasters using "double eagle."

Australian golfer Ogilvy once told USA Today that, "I didn't know what a double eagle was until I came to the United States."

Another Australian golfer, John Senden, said the same thing: "Growing up it was always an albatross. I never knew it was anything different until I was maybe 15."

The same article quotes Irish golfer Padraig Harrington disparaging the use of "double eagle":

"It's an albatross. There's no such thing in life as a double eagle. Is there? Two eagles side by side are two eagles, not a double eagle. You don't refer to animals ... 'Oh, I just saw a double elephant over there.' There's no doubting what it is. It's an albatross."

There are many American golfers (and golf media members) who'd like to get the United States onto "albatross" and off of "double eagle." But, then, the rest of the world has been trying to get us to switch to the metric system for decades, so ... it probably won't work.

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