The Albatross has landed ... and taken off again

6 December 2014

A Mystery is (not) Solved

One of the consequences of publishing this website is that, from time to time, people get in contact with pieces of new information, and one such occurred earlier this year when I was notified of a story on the origin of the ‘albatross’ published in Golf Monthly March 1962.

In the article, John G Ridland describes how he scored a two on the Par-5 9th hole of the Nashik course in the Championship of Western India, in September 1934, with his new set of Bobby Jones steel shafted clubs. Though ‘birdies’ and ‘eagles’ were quite common golfing terms, there was not one for 3 under par and JG Ridland says that he suggested the name ‘albatross’, fascinated by their incredible ability to shadow ships for miles across the ocean.

The club members gave him a picture of an albatross with a sketch of his shot. Unfortunately, this piece of golf history was destroyed in the blitz in World War Two.

However, subsequent research uncovered at least nine prior published references of the term ‘albatross’ in golf going back to 1929 at least. So possibly there was a subconscious memory of the word in India in 1934, or misremembered details, which were, after all, not recorded formally until almost 30 years later.

One aspect of the story is probably true however.  The appearance of the golf ‘albatrosses’ coincided with the arrival of steel shafted clubs, and JG Ridland correctly theorized that this was the reason for their increased frequency and why a name was now needed. Hickory clubs could not reach the par-5 holes in two.

In 1924 the USGA legalized steel-shafted clubs, and in 1929 the R&A followed suit, but it took time for them to catch on. Bobby Jones retired in 1930 and, soon after, Spalding licensed his name to create steel-shafted clubs. The early ones were painted to look like hickories, but they achieved greater distances. In time, of course, courses were lengthened to take this into account.

Birdie + Eagle = Albatross

The use of the term ‘birdie’ as one under par is known from 1899/1903 in USA and from 1913 in the UK in an article by Bernard Darwin.

The term ‘eagle’ appeared shortly afterwards, always as an 'American' term. In 1919, Mr H D Gaunt described a golfing trip to Canada where he had endeavoured to teach Canadians how to play 'mixed foursomes' golf, but he found the lingo baffling.

The language of the game is entirely new to the Britisher. Ringers, birdies, eagles and, I believe, beantops are some of the expressions which are in constant use.

Sheffield Evening Telegraph Thu 11 Sep 1919.

Ringers were birdies and eagles were two under pars, but Mr Gaunt could not remember what beantops were.

PG Wodehouse used the term eagle in his novel 'The Heart of a Goof' in 1926 indicating an awareness of the term among general readers. 

When he had got that eagle on the third, he had looked bored.

However, Bobby Jones’ eagle in the Amateur Championship on the 4th hole of the Old Course, (then 427 yard par-4) on 26th May 1930, was only reported as an ‘amazing’ shot and none of the national press used the term ‘eagle’ though they often mentioned ‘birdies’ in their reports on the Championship.

Throughout the 1930s, both birdie and eagle were almost always as referred to in the British Press as American golfing terms, while the albatross is not.

First Albatross?

To date, the first written reference to the golf ‘albatross’ is in 1929, in a florid newspaper report of a local golf match between Durham and West Hartlepool, captained by their respective Mayors, though no albatross was actually scored.

Past the Stone Man

One certainly didn’t hear of any ‘albatrosses’ or even ‘eagles’ but certainly some ‘birdies’ were achieved.  The “stone man” too had to bow his head. The Mayor of West Hartlepool’s son [WS Hope] got a beautiful drive away from the 2nd tee and the ball sailed 20 or 30 yards past the “stone man”.    

Hartlepool Mail Sat 17 August 1929.

Albatross Straits Times 14 Sep 1931

The Straits Times 14 Sep 1931 on Hole-in-One / Albatross at Durban Country Club by EE Wooler

The first three under score reported as an 'albatross' in the press is from South Africa when E E Wooler scored a hole-in-one in the summer of 1931 on the 18th hole of the Durban Country Club which is a par-4. This was reported as an 'albatross' by the Western Daily Press Bristol (1st Aug 1931) and The Straits Times Singapore (14th Sep 1931), probably both written by the Press Association.  The feat cost him £40 in drinks (a lot of money in those days) and his playing companion had suggested scarpering to avoid paying.

The first mention of an ‘albatross’ on British soil is  P H White of the ‘Light Blues’ (Cambridge University GC) in a match at and against Stoke Poges, which he lost. Thereafter albatrosses are infrequent enough to be mentioned in the press, but frequent enough that there are over 10 albatrosses before Gene Sarazen’s famous one to get to the play-off to win the Masters at Augusta USA in 1935, (though he himself referred to this shot as a ‘dodo’ and not as double eagle or albatross).

Shooting an Albatross

It is an ancient Mariner

And he stoppeth one of three.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798)

The most famous albatross in history is the one in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. ‘He stoppeth one in three’ and the three under par of the Albatross is not the only co-incidence with the Coleridge poem.

Early references are often to ‘shooting an albatross’ as in 1931 when Western Daily Press reported that E E Wooler had 'in golfing parlance, shot an albatross' when scoring his hole-in-one. Of course ‘shooting an albatross’ is what caused the Ancient Mariner a lifetime of bad luck and in all the early match golf reports found, where the result is given, the player scoring the albatross lost the match.  So could Coleridge have been the inspiration for the ‘albatross’ in golf all along?


Earliest Albatrosses 1870 to 1935*

The first 3-under-par score known is Young Tom Morris in 1870 to win the Belt, in the era before there were par scores! But on the assumed basis that the 1st hole at Prestwick would have been rated as a Par-6 at 578 yards, he scored three under and could be considered the first albatross holder.

Year

Player

Hole

Report

1870

Tom Morris Jnr (St Andrews Mechanics GC)

Prestwick (Open)

1st hole 578 yards par-6 attributed

National press

15 Sep 1870

1931

E E Wooler (DCC)

Durban Country Club

18th hole ca 270 yards par-4 (Hole in One)

Western Daily Press

Sat 1 Aug 1931

The Straits Times

Mon 14 Sep 1931

1932

P H White (CUGC)

Stoke Poges (Match)

5th hole 449 yards par-5

Aberdeen Journal /

Dundee Courier /

Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer

Mon 14 Nov 1932

1933

G A Boothby (R&A)

Old Course St Andrews

14th hole 527 yards par-5

Dundee Courier

Fri 24 Feb 1933

1933

G P Robertson (Carnoustie GC)

Carnoustie

18th hole par-5

(now 444 yard par-4)

Dundee Courier

Fri 24 Feb 1933

1933

Kenneth Roberts (George Watsons, Edinburgh)

Carnoustie (British Boys)

2nd hole par-5

(now 435 yards par-4)

Dundee Evening Telegraph

Tue 22 Aug 1933

1933

J W L Adams (Arbroath GC)

Carnoustie

18th hole par-5

(now 444 yard par-4)

Dundee Courier

Sat 30 Sep 1933

1934

James Manzie (Carnoustie GC)

Carnoustie (Club Championship)

12th hole 479 yards par-5

Dundee Courier

Thu 21 Jun 1934

1934

D E A Napier (Arbroath Artisans)

Elliot Golf Course (Fourball foursome)

13th hole 375 yards par-5 on plateau

Arbroath Herald and Advertiser for Montrose Burghs

Fri 20 July 1934

1934

John Byron Nelson

Texarkana Country Club (Social)

16th hole 575 yards par-5

Double Eagle Club

1934

John G Ridland

Nashik (Championship of West India)

9th hole 510 yards par-5

Golf Monthly

March 1962 p 25

1935

Gene Sarazen

(Eugenio Saraceni)

Augusta (Masters)

15th hole 485 par-5

National Press

7 Apr 1935

 *This is not a comprehensive list, merely the earliest found to date after a cursory review of public information. 

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