New Jersey is well known in golf circles for its world-renowned courses, its major-championship history and its ties to the USGA. But New Jersey also plays a pivotal role in some of the game’s more trivial history.
Take this quote: “I hit it long and straight off the tee all day, which set me up for some good birdie opportunities. No mulligans needed.”
It sounds like something most golfers have said or heard their playing partners say at some point. It’s a pretty routine statement on the surface – mundane or even clichéd – but it’s full of entrenched golf vernacular that has roots in the Garden State.
Teeing it Up
When someone heads to the course, they will often say they are going to “tee it up.” That, of course, references the first action a golfer takes during a round: placing their tee in the ground before hitting their opening shot.
But the golf tee isn’t as old as the game itself. Although Boston dentist Dr. George Grant patented the first tee in 1899, he primarily used his creation for private use, and it did not take hold on a larger scale. Into the 1920s, players formed mounds with wet sand to elevate the ball. It was at this time that a dentist – what is it about dentists and golf tees? – from South Orange, N.J., changed the game’s trajectory forever.
According to the New Jersey State Golf Association, William Lowell played his first round of golf at Maplewood (N.J.) Country Club and was taken aback by the primitive teeing method of the time. He went back to his dental office and fashioned a tee out of a stick of wood from a flagpole and a small gutta-percha cup. He then had the design replicated, painted the tees red and marketed them as the “Reddy Tee.”
The invention took off in 1922 when legendary golfer Walter Hagen – by then a two-time U.S. Open champion – used them for a $1,500 endorsement fee. The patent for the Reddy Tee was approved in May 1925, bringing in a small fortune for a golf-playing dentist from New Jersey.
Birth of the Birdie
The term “birdie” has long been the moniker given to a score of 1 under par on a single hole. It has become accepted doctrine in golf terminology, but the question of its origin is rarely raised, despite seeming an odd fit for golf.
The genesis of birdie comes from Atlantic City Country Club. The USGA Golf Museum cites H.B. Martin’s 1936 book Fifty Years of American Golf with the historical tracing of the term.
It all began during an 1899 foursomes match at Atlantic City. Ab Smith, one of the players, hit an excellent shot to within 6 inches of the hole and remarked: “That was a bird of a shot. … I suggest that when one of us plays a hole in 1 under par he receives double compensation.”
In 19th-century slang, “bird” was often used to describe anything of excellence. So, the players in the group agreed from that point on that a score of 1 under par on a hole would be called a birdie. Obviously, the term took hold worldwide and eagle (2 under par) and albatross (3 under par) are derived from birdie.
There are multiple origin stories regarding the term “mulligan,” in which a player gets to replay a poor stroke, and there is no consensus on which tale is correct.
However, one such story dates to the 1930s at Essex Fells Country Club in Roseland, N.J. The story goes that locker room attendant John A. “Buddy” Mulligan was playing a match with two other players. His opening shot was wayward, and he asked the others for a do-over because they had been practicing all morning and Mulligan had not.
Afterward, Mulligan proudly boasted of the extra stroke he had received, and club members began giving themselves “mulligans” in Buddy’s honor. Mulligan went on to become the golf editor for the Newark Evening News and often used the term in his golf stories.
While New Jersey’s most visible place in the golf world is its numerous world-class layouts, the next time you tee it up in the Garden State, make sure to consider the other lasting contributions to the game that started there.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.