What do the Birdman of Alcatraz and Golf Have in Common?


See, I told you I’d have more amazing albatross facts for you. 

I actually never imagined I’d have so much to write about albatrosses. I think I’ve thought more about them over the last two days than in the rest of my life beforehand. But, in writing yesterday, there were some things I already knew about albatrosses and some things I learned that I wanted to include, but I felt that the post would be too stuffed with albatross goodness. So here we are!

The golfers among you will probably know the link between albatrosses and golf. A score of 3-under par on an individual golf hole is known as an albatross. A much more common score of 1-under par is known as a birdie.

The story behind this goes that one day in 1899, three friends were playing golf at the Atlantic City Country Club, New Jersey, USA. Paralleling “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” one accidentally hit a bird, which deflected his ball near the cup. He was then left with a short putt which he successfully holed to get a score of 1-under par. Rather than tie the bird around his neck, the man’s friends declared the shot a birdie, which quickly spread around the club, and then the world.

A shot of 2-under par is known as an eagle, 3-under an albatross, and the incredibly rare 4-under is a condor. Where do these terms come from? Do they refer to the birds struck in order to make each shot for the first time? Mercifully, from an animal-welfare point of view, the answer is much more mundane, and no animals were harmed in the etymology of these terms.

Eagle was chosen as the name for 2-under par simply because an eagle is bigger than the average bird (I don’t know what bird was hit in that 1899 game, or if it survived). An albatross was chosen for 3-under because it’s even bigger than an eagle, and a condor… well, you can see where this is going. A condor is the highest possible score for an individual hole (a hole-in-one on a par-5 hole), which is why there’s no emu or ostrich in golf.

That’s golf taken care off, but what about the Birdman of Alcatraz? Surely he didn’t have an albatross among the birds he looked after? Of course not, and actually, I don’t want to talk about him, but Alcatraz Prison itself. Because the word alcatraz actually means… albatross! Although the name of the island actually refers to pelicans. You may want to sit down, this gets surprisingly complicated…

It all starts with the Arabic al-แธกaแนญแนญฤs (diver), which was the origin for the names of a few different aquatic diving birds (like gannets), and specifically the Spanish and Portuguese word alcatraz, meaning pelican. The first Europeans to discover Alcatraz Island were Spanish explorers who marvelled at the sheer number of pelicans on the island, hence the name.

In Portuguese though, alcatraz also referred to albatrosses. If you’re familiar with Portuguese, you’re probably thinking that alcatraz isn’t the Portuguese word for albatross. And you’re right, it’s not anymore. In modern Portuguese, the word is actually albatroz. This word is actually derived from the English albatross, which in turn is derived from the older Portuguese alcatraz. I told you it was confusing.

And that’s all I’ve got to say about albatrosses! It’s certainly been much more than I ever thought I’d say about them, but for me at least, it’s been a fun journey. Now, about that word gannet

16 thoughts on “What do the Birdman of Alcatraz and Golf Have in Common?

  1. Not many are willing to do the hard work in breaking down abstract terms. This was actually well worth the read. I’ve played golf for years and have never heard the terms albatross or condor.

    Before you mentioned “eagle” I started to wonder if Americans had replaced one of the birds mentioned for something more nationally pleasing.

    Great idea for a blog, excellent post, and I’ll be back!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I always found the birdie/eagle thing odd in golf, and had to find out the story behind it, though I though it’d be more unusual than just a case of “this bird is bigger than the last one!”


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