The Double Eagle in Golf: Its Meaning and History

In golf, "double eagle" is a scoring term that refers to a score of 3-under par on a hole. The specific scores that result in a double eagle are:
  • On a par-4 hole, a double eagle is a score of 1 (a hole in one).
  • On a par-5 hole, a double eagle is a score of 2.
If you play enough golf you might run across a par-6 hole, and on a par-6 a double eagle is a score of 3. Double eagles are impossible on par-3 holes (3-under on a par-3 hole is zero).

Doubles eagles are much rarer than holes-in-one because they (almost always) require holing out a stroke played from a fairway, as opposed to holing out a shot played off a tee on a par-3. If a golfer makes a double eagle on a par-4, that would be a tee shot, but it's also a shot the acer wouldn't call a double eagle — they'd call it a hole-in-one. Most double eagles happen on par-5 holes when, after a long driver, the golfer hits the green on his second stroke and the ball rolls into the hole. As an example of their rarity, in the entire history of The Masters Tournament, only four double eagles have been scored.

Synonyms for 'Double Eagle'

The most-common synonym for double eagle is "albatross," and it is a synonym that is so common it probably has been more commonly used than "double eagle" since both terms have existed. Today, our impression is that the terms are used about equally for a score of 3-under-par on a hole.

Double eagle is the American term, albatross is the British term. Albatross is also the preferred term in most areas that fall under the R&A's purview, which means most of the world outside of the U.S. However, because American television and culture dominates world culture, and the PGA Tour is the world's top golf tour, "double eagle" is also heard today around the world.

The word "dodo" was also once used as a synonym for double eagle, mostly in America. In fact, Gene Sarazen called his famous double eagle in the 1935 Masters a dodo. "Dodo" still shows up from time to time, but mostly in articles like this one about the double eagle, rather than in organic usages.

"Airplane" was also once used as a term for a score of 3-under par on a hole, but that was never common and never caught on. In a newspaper column that appeared in papers on January 4, 1929, sportswriter O.B. Keeler stated of double eagles that "some flamboyant fans try to call them airplanes, but I never cared for that."

Early Uses of 'Double Eagle'

When did the scoring term "double eagle" enter the golf lexicon? It's probably impossible to pin down the exact time and place when the term was invented. But we can say with certainty that some golfers in the United States were using the term at least by the 1910s.

How do we know that? By checking print sources. One of the earliest appearances in print of the term "double eagle" is from a 1920 issue of Walter Travis' The American Golfer magazine. Under the headline "Questions and Answers," the magazine published a reader letter. The reader was asking, basically, what the proper terms are for scores of 1-under par, 2-under par and 3-under par on a given hole.

We can imagine the magazine's succinct reply leading many American golfers to learning these terms for the first time: "One under par is a birdie. Two under par is an eagle. When a hole is made in 3 under par, it might be called a double eagle."

Note the magazine stated what the birdie and eagle are called, while the use of double eagle was given more as a suggestion. We can conclude, then, that there were many golfers using double eagle by 1920 to mean 3-under on a hole — but probably many more who were not yet familiar with the term.

One of the earliest appearances of "double eagle" that we've been able to find in a newspaper is from the July 28, 1921 Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger. In an article rounding up local golf news, "Makes A Double-Eagle" was one of the sub-headlines. The article stated that a golfer at Merion Country Club recently "holed the sixteenth in a double eagle, a drive and a cleek." The article's writer did not feel it necessary to define the term double eagle.

But even by the time of the 1929 O.B. Keeler article referenced earlier, "double eagle" had not yet spread to every corner of the American golf scene. Keeler, after all, was replying to a reader's question about the proper term for holing out one's second shot on a par-5 hole. Keeler wrote, "I always had called such an achievement a double-eagle," but also mentioned "dodo" and "airplane" in his reply.

(On a related note: Which came first, double eagle or albatross? According to ScottishGolfHistory.org, the earliest British newspaper reference yet found to the golf meaning of albatross is from 1929.)

One final note about "double eagle" catching on and spreading through the American golf scene. The New York Times has been known as "the paper of record," and has always been very conservative in its adoption of new words and phrases. So when was "double eagle" first used in the New York Times? That happened in a February 11, 1934, article. But it wasn't an article about a golf tournament, it was an article about baseball superstar Babe Ruth. It is often claimed that Gene Sarazen's double eagle in the 1935 Masters is what popularized the term, but as we can see, "double eagle" had been in use for quite some time before that — even in the staid New York Times.

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