Explaining the Golf Expression 'Quail-High'

What is a "quail-high" shot in golf? It is one in which the ball flies low and on a flat trajectory — a shot where the golf ball never gets too high off the ground.

But a quail-high shot definitely does get off the ground — it is not a "wormburner." And it is not necessarily a mis-hit. A quail-high trajectory might result from a mis-hit, but a golfer might also play for a quail-high shot in order to keep a ball low and out of the wind, or to flight a ball low in order to keep it underneath overhanging branches, for example.

In his 1948 book Ben Hogan Power Golf (affiliate links used for books mentioned in this post), Hogan wrote, "When the wind is blowing, a low shot — or quail-high, as we say in Texas — will bite right into the wind and cover more ground than you would ordinarily get under the same conditions with a normal flight of the ball."

One of the earliest newspaper usages we've run across is from a 1937 edition of the Australian Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser — but the paper was writing about American golfer Walter Hagen, who was on an exhibition tour Down Under:

"During a recent exhibition match one of Walter Hagen's opponents half-topped his ball with a brassie, and it flew low, about 8 to 10 feet high above the ground. 'Gee,' said Hagen, 'that one was quail-high.' He explained, when questioned, that the ball flew almost the same flight as a stubble quail, and the expression 'quail high' was common among sportsmen in the United States."
Legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice used the term several times in his 1952 book, The Tumult and the Shouting: My Life in Sport. At one point, writing about a bevy of great golfers coming out of Texas (Hogan being one of them) in the 1920s-40s, Rice wrote, "Perhaps the fact that they feature low-soaring, quail-high shots is due in part to their having played the ball off concrete-hard Texas fairways during their formative years."

Sam Snead wrote in his 1962 book, The Education of Golfer, "We came to the 12th hole, where I hit a quail-high hook under a tree."

Based on newspaper usage, the term seems to have been most-commonly used from around the late 1930s into the 1970s, and its usage has fallen off since then. It's still an expression one hears from time to time on the golf course, though, or in broadcasts of golf tournaments.

"Rat high" is a synonym of quail high, although never as popularly used.

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