BIRTH OF THE BIRDIE - ATLANTIC CITY COUNTRY CLUB
Birth of the Birdie
Except for the whistle of a strong bay breeze, all fell quiet as Abner "Ab" Smith lined up his shot down the long twelfth fairway at the Atlantic City Country Club. It was late in the afternoon on a windy, but mild Saturday, a typical winter weekend outing for the group from suburban Philadelphia who frequented the Jersey Shore course when their home fairways were covered with snow.
Smith slowly took up is backswing, then let go with a wallop, putting the ball on the green, inches from the hole allowing for an easy putt and a one-under-par for the hole. It was such a fine shot that someone in the group was moved to say it was a "bird of a shot."
With the putt, Smith won the hole in one-under-par, and because the players were playing for a ball-a-hole, they then agreed to double the wager on a hole where a golfer who hits such a "bird of shot" wins with a one-under-par "birdie."
Thus began a tradition at the club, and the coining of a new term. Visitors who learned of the local "birdie" tradition took it back to their home clubs and it eventually spread around the world. It would become universal in its meaning and usage.
The term "birdie" is one word in the English language that can be traced back to the original moment in time and place when it was first used. Even the green where the celebrated first birdie occurred has been preserved for posterity. It’s the same hole where Ab Smith and is cronies made golf history, although they didn’t realize it at the time.
"It’s all well documented," assured Kenny Robinson, the long time caddymaster and pro shop manager.
That the term "birdie" is of American origin or that it was coined at the Atlantic City Country Club is undisputed, though some of the details have shifted in the sands of time.
In Country Life magazine, on September 20, 1913, famed British golf writer Bernard Darwin wrote, "It takes a day or two for the English onlooker [in the U.S.] to understand that….a ‘birdie’ is a hole done in a stroke under par."
In 1936, H.B. Martin, in his Fifty Years of American Golf, quotes Ab Smith himself, while playing a threesome, taking credit for not only hitting the ‘bird of a shot,’ but making the exclamation and suggesting it be paid double the bet, as well as calling it a "birdie."
Smith also claimed the incident occurred in 1899. According to Smith, "…my ball…came to a 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.’"
Charles Price, a longtime member of the Atlantic City Country Club, who wrote about the incident in his book The World of Golf, also notched the year as 1899, and repeated a patently untrue account of Smith’s ball hitting a bird in flight.
Price, "…To…the abomination in the eyes of the British, Americans added a term of their own – ‘birdie,’ or one less than par for a hole. This expression was coined in 1899 at The Country Club of Atlantic City. It seems that one day three golfers – Ab Smith, his brother William, and George Crump, who was later to build Pine Valley about forty-five miles away – were playing together when rump hit his second shot only inches from the cup on a par-four hole after his first had struck a bird in flight."
Simultaneously," wrote Price, "the Smith brothers exclaimed that Crump’s shot was a ‘bird.’ Crump’s short putt left him one under par for the hole, and from that day the three of them referred to such a score as a ‘birdie.’ In short order, the entire membership of the club began using the term, and since, as a resort, the club had a lot of out-of-town visitors, the expression soon spread and caught the fancy of all American golfers. From ‘birdie’ there naturally followed such blasphemous Americanizations as ‘double-bogey’ and ‘eagle.’"
Atlantic City Press sports editor Ed Nichterlien wrote, "The incident that produced the term involved a four-some of William and George Crump, A. W. Tillinghast and Abner ‘Ab’ Smith. Ab hit his second shot on the second hold barely inches from the cup," related Nickerlien, "and one of the brothers remarked that he had hit a ‘bird of a shot.’ Since it enabled Ab to complete the hole in one-under-par, it was decided to call a one-under-par hole a ‘birdie,’ and to compensate the man who scored it by paying him double that hole. The term ‘eagle’ (for two under par) naturally followed, - likewise of Atlantic City coinage."
The April, 1991 issue of Golf Digest contains a story on the origin of golf terms by Jock Howard, an editor at Golf World United Kingdom: "It is entirely fitting that an out door cross-country sport such as golf should be full of imagery….It is only comparatively recently that women have had a monopoly on the term.," wrote Howard, in regards to the British custom of referring to women as ‘birds.’
Howard explained, "If you were in an exceptionally smart or accomplished person living in the Thirteenth century England your friends might refer to you as a bird. To be a bird was to be suave and sophisticated, polished and generally a good egg. Towards the end of the Nineteenth century, bird was American slang used frequently to describe a person or thing of excellence, such as, ‘He is a perfect bird of a man.’"
As for the golf term, Howard relates, "Bird was reputed to have been first used in connection with golf at the Atlantic City Country Club in New Jersey in 1903. An American called Ab Smith was playing a par 4 when he hit his second shot stiff to the hole. He turned to his partners and shouted joyfully, ‘That’s a bird of a shot!’"
Since Atlantic City became a major resort town, people came from all over America and the world to vacation, and those who played golf went to the Atlantic City Country Club, where they learned of the local tradition, picked up the term and took it with them back to their home course.
The earliest recorded published reference is believed to have been in McCleans Magazine in 1911, when it was reported, "….Lansborough followed with a bird, straight down the course about 215 yards."
It was first used in print to refer to a one-under par in the Glasgow Herald some years later: "Brown squared with a birdie three at the second."
The term "eagle," for two-under par, also has an Atlantic City Country Club origin, and first saw print in 1922.
Closest to the truth is probably A.W. Tillinghast’s version, published in the April, 1933 issue of Golf Ilustrated, thirty years after the event occurred. Tillinghast recalled that they were playing winter golf, probably on a Saturday, when his group of regulars from the ‘Quaker’ City (of Philadelphia) arrived at the Shore by train. The year was 1903.
"Now instead of playing the conventional two or four ball encounters," Tillinghast wrote, "we had drifted to the habit of all playing together if we were less than a dozen….Thus originated a sort of mob golf, which became known about the country as a ‘Philadelphia Ballsome,’ for stakes were usually a ball or two for each hole."
"It came to pass that we were playing the long twelfth hole (in the order at the time), with a keen following wind. The hole usually played as a three-shotter, but on this occasion someone got away two screamers and got home in two. As the second shot hit the green either Bill Smith or his brother Ab exclaimed: ‘That’s a bird!’."
"Immediately the other remarked that such an effort that resulted in cutting par by a stroke should be rewarded doubly, and there on the spot it was agreed that thereafter this should be done. And so it was, the exclamation of Smith, giving the name, Bird, which gradually was to become a term of the game, used wherever it is played today."
Tillinghast remembers little more than the foursome, and doesn’t know if it was George Crump or his brother Bill who made the remark.
Kenny Robinson explained that the original ‘long twelfth hole’ that Tillinghast refers to eventually became the second hole when the course was redesigned in the early 20s. In 1946, when Leo Fraser became the owner, the legendary green was kept intact as a practice green, as it is today. According to Robinson, "Leo Fraser kept the hole as it was because he recognized it as the historic site where the term birdie first originated."
Today a plaque marks the spot where Ab Smith made the first "bird of a shot," now used as the practice green.
[Originally published in Golfer’s Tee Times (Vol. 1 #1), and as Chapter 9 of the book Birth of the Birdie – The First 100 Years of Golf at the Atlantic City Country Club, by William Kelly, 1997]