Where mulligans came from and 8 more golf mysteries explained

golf mysteries
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By T.J. Auclair
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Series: Golf Buzz

Published: Wednesday, September 13, 2017 | 10:14 a.m.

More so than any other sport, golf is loaded with intricacies, many of them confusing and -- in some cases -- mysterious.

With that in mind, we figured it would be fun to take a deep dig into some of the game's mysteries and try to find some clarity.

Here are nine golf mysteries explained.

1. Where does the word "golf" come from?

This may seem basic, but have you ever thought about why the name of the game we love is "golf?"

Contrary to popular belief, it is not an acronym for "Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden." That's nothing more than a myth.

Instead, it's believed that the origin of the word comes from the Dutch word "kolf" or "kolve," which means "club." According to many sources, because of the eccentricities of Scottish dialect it was pronounced “golve,” “gowl” or “gouf."

2. Where did the word "Mulligan" originate?

PGA of America Historian Bob Denney uncovered this very topic for us in detail a couple of years back, but it's worth revisiting here.

There are a couple of theories, but this is our favorite from Denney's research on the term that allows a golfer to re-do a poor opening tee shot:

John A. “Buddy” Mulligan, a locker room attendant in the 1930s at Essex Fells CC, N.J., would finish cleaning the locker room and, if no other members appeared, play a round with assistant professional, Dave O'Connell and a club member, Des Sullivan (later golf editor of The Newark Evening News).

One day, Mulligan’s opening tee shot was bad and he beseeched O'Connell and Sullivan to allow another shot since they “had been practicing all morning,” and he had not. After the round, Mulligan proudly exclaimed to the members in his locker room for months how he received an extra shot.

The members loved it and soon began giving themselves “Mulligans” in honor of Buddy Mulligan. Sullivan began using the term in his golf pieces in The Newark Evening News. NBC’s “Today Show” ran the story in 2005.

Thus, a “Mulligan” found its niche along in our culture. Its popularity thrives because of who we are – lovers of a good story and a term that somehow fits. It thrives as we are reminded in a classic line from the 1962 John Ford Western film, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

The "Mulligan" is also the source of one of my favorite golf jokes:

Q. What do they call a "Mulligan" in Scotland?

A. "Hitting three."

3. Why are you limited to 14 golf clubs?

For many years, it wasn't uncommon for golfers to carry much more than 14 clubs. Bobby Jones, in fact, was known to carry up to 25 clubs in his bag.

However, according to a story in Links Magazine, the USGA's Rand Jerris explained that things got serious about setting a limit to the number of clubs one can carry when a player -- Lawson Little -- showed up to the 1935 U.S. Open with a bag that contained a full set of right-handed and a full set of left-handed irons -- the theory being that should his ball come to rest against the side of a tree, he shouldn't be at a disadvantage.

From the Links Magazine article:

The first grumbling was heard in late '34 when the USGA received a letter from George Jacobus, President of the PGA of America, asking if the ruling bodies were planning to restrict the number of clubs allowed and saying that the PGA would back such a notion. "The PGA was worried about taking challenge away from the game,” says Jerris.

During surveys of the fields at the 1935 U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open, it was discovered that the average number of clubs carried was 18.

According to the article, the USGA had three concerns with that revelation:

1) "de-skilling" the game ("they actually used that term, de-skilling," says Jerris); 2) inequality between wealthy golfers, who could afford many clubs, and average players who couldn't; and 3) caddies, who were having to carry bags that weighed in excess of 35 pounds.

So, in 1936, the USGA and R&A announced that a new 14-club limit would be in place beginning in 1938. It's been that way ever since.

It remains unknown as to why the limit was set at 14, but Jerris has as good an explanation was we could find: A matched set of nine irons with one putter and the accepted four woods.

4. Why is it that a regulation round of golf features 18 holes?

Believe it or not, 18 holes didn't become the standard of golf until the early 1900s. Prior to that, most courses featured between 12-23 holes.

The birthplace of golf -- St. Andrews, originally a 22-hole course -- was the first to convert to 18 holes in roughly 1764. The reason? It came down to the fact that 18 holes were easier to maintain than 22.

Sam Groves, curator of the British Golf Museum explained the change in an article on about.golf.com:

"In 1858, the R&A issued new rules for its members; Rule 1 stated 'one round of the Links or 18 holes is reckoned a match unless otherwise stipulated'. We can only presume that, as many clubs looked to the R&A for advice, this was slowly adopted throughout Britain. By the 1870s, therefore, more courses had 18 holes and a round of golf was being accepted as consisting of 18 holes."

5. Why do golf balls have dimples?

This is simple. It's a matter of aerodynamics. The dimples allow the ball to penetrate through the air.

The Scientific American explains:

Dimples on a golf ball create a thin turbulent boundary layer of air that clings to the ball's surface. This allows the smoothly flowing air to follow the ball's surface a little farther around the back side of the ball, thereby decreasing the size of the wake. A dimpled ball thus has about half the drag of a smooth ball.

Dimples also affect lift. A smooth ball with backspin creates lift by warping the airflow such that the ball acts like an airplane's wing. The spinning action makes the air pressure on the bottom of the ball higher than the air pressure on the top; this imbalance creates an upward force on the ball. Ball spin contributes about one half of a golf ball's lift. The other half is provided by the dimples, which allow for optimization of the lift force.

6. Where did the golf terms "birdie," "eagle," and "albatross?"

The term “birdie” comes from an American named A B Smith. While playing a round in 1899, he played what he described as a "bird of a shot," which became "birdie" over time. 

"Eagle" (2 under) and "albatross" (3 under) were also established by Smith as rarer types of birds.

7. What is a "Condor?"

It's the only thing in golf better than an albatross. A "Condor" is 4 under for one hole, or -- a hole-in-one on a par 5. Strange as it may seem, there have actually been four verified condors.

This from www.golftoday.co.uk:

The first occurred in 1962, when Larry Bruce drove into the hole over a stand of trees on the 480-yard dogleg right par-5 fifth hole at Hope Country Club in Arkansas, USA.

Another condor was achieved by "cutting the corner" of a dogleg par-5 by Shaun Lynch at Teign Valley Golf Club in Christow, England, in 1995, on the 496-yard 17th. Lynch aimed straight at the green with a 3-iron, clearing a 20-foot-high hedge and hitting a downslope on the other side, which allowed his ball to roll down to the green and into the hole.

A condor was scored without cutting over a dogleg by Mike Crean at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver, Colorado, in 2002, when he holed his drive at the 517 yard par-5 9th. This is longest hole in one on record, although it was of course aided by the altitude and thin air of 'mile-high' Denver.

The most recent condor was achieved in Australia by 16 year old Jack Bartlett on the 467 metre par-5 17th at Royal Wentworth Falls Country Club, NSW, Australia, on November 3, 2007.

8. Where did the term "bogey" come from?

This from a story written by Brent Kelley for golf.about.com:

According to the USGA Museum, the "Bogey Man" was a character in a British song of the late 19th Century. He lived in the shadows and said in song, "I'm the Bogey Man, catch me if you can."

The USGA writes that British golfers of the era began chasing the Bogey Man on the golf course, meaning chasing after the perfect score (catch me if you can).

An aside: Sure is strange how some words develop, isn't it? Now back to the program ...

Over time, the term "bogey score" came into usage - but it denoted a good score, not a poor one. In other words, bogey was interchangeable, at that time, with the word "par."

In the early part of the 20th Century, however, par began to be applied to the ideal score of professional golfers, while bogey gradually became applied to recreational golfers. From there, it was a short leap to its current meaning of a score of 1-over par.

As "par" became the accepted term for a good score on a hole, "bogey" was applied to the higher score recreational golfers might expect to achieve.

9. When was the "stymie" abolished?

First off, have you ever heard of a "stymie" as it relates to golf? It happened when -- in match play -- you weren't forced to mark your golf ball if it was in the way of your opponent on the green.

This meant that rather than your opponent having a straight line from his ball to the hole, he also had to try and navigate his ball around yours to get to the hole by going left, right, or in some cases, chip over.

In 1920, the USGA tested a modified stymie rule for one year, allowing a stymied player to concede the opponent's next putt. The next change to the stymie rule came in 1938, when the USGA began a two-year trial in which an obstructing ball within 6 inches of the hole could be moved regardless of the distance between the balls. The USGA made this rule permanent in 1941. However, during this time, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews never modified the stymie rule.

The stymie was finally removed from the rules effective in 1952, when the USGA and R&A established a joint set of rules. 

T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.