by Jim Corbett

In the years that I have been writing the advice column, “Ask Mr. Golf Etiquette,” there is one question from readers that keeps coming up over and over again. Golfers everywhere want to know why golfers everywhere holler “FORE!” when they send a ball careening off in the wrong direction.

Generally, golfers know the term ‘Fore’ has been around for a long time, and they understand it to be one of those golfing traditions that endear the game to its many devoted fans. They are quite unsure, however, as to the origin of the term. In fact, many people think they are shouting the number, “FOUR!” and can’t understand why they’re not required to call out, “FIVE!” or “SIX” or some other equally irrelevant number.

For a long time it was mistakenly believed the term had its origin when an early Scottish golfer traipsing across the links cried out to a fellow golfer who was about to be beaned, “Forrr Gud’s sakes, mon, git yurrr hed duwn if ya dunna care t’ be feelin’ a rrright smarrrt boomp.” It is assumed that warning cry was unsuccessful in preventing the unwanted “boomp” since it was a tad on the long side, so it was shortened a bit to make it more practical. (However, even the shortened version, “Forrr Gud’s sakes, mon, git yurrr hed duwn!” even proved to be too long and ultimately all the golfers really had time for was the, “Forrr” part.)

Despite the belief to the contrary, that is NOT origin of the term.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “fore” used in a golf context is probably a contraction for “Before.” It cites the first written use of the term in 1878 as, “A warning cry to people in front of the stroke.” The Historical Dictionary of Golfing Terms, by Peter Davies also claims that “fore” is originally a Scottish word that is a shortened version of the word “before.” (Peter Davies probably got it from the OED.)

Those explanations are unsatisfactory. They tell what the word ‘fore’ means; we already know that. What we’re curious about is how we started using it in golf.

I had heard a story some time ago that lead me to believe the word had its basis in a command given by British commanders back in the days when the Redcoats lined up in columns to fire at an approaching enemy. The story as I understood it, was the Commander would call, “Fore!” to the “forward” row of troops lined up to fire and the forward line would kneel giving a clear shot to the row of troops behind.

The essence of the command then was to “get down because something is going to be fired over your head.” There would have been a logical transition from that military context to the golfing context since military personnel were undoubtedly at least partially responsible for exporting the game of golf from the British Isles to the far reaches of the earth. (Let’s not forget that whole, “Sun never sets on the British Empire” thing.)

In order to document that belief, I contacted, via the internet, several British military historians, all of whom discredited the story. They informed me that the command to which I had referred was not, “Fore!” but was actually, “Make Ready!” Well, since I had never heard any golfers shouting, “Make ready!” out on the course I just figured that, like so many times before, I had simply been misinformed.

Well, imagine my surprise when I was recently reading a book entitled, A History of Golf, by Robert Browning, (1955, J.M. Dent & Sons) and found the very reference for which I had been searching. Browning, a Scot, was the editor of the magazine called, “Golfing” from 1910 to 1955 and was a scholar devoted to tracing the authenticity of the many claims about the games history and lore.

I will let Browning’s work describe the situation for interested readers:

Dr. Neilson, a keen student of Scottish history and literature, discovered a passage in the works of John Knox which, shorn of the eccentricities of sixteenth-century spelling, reads as follows: ‘One among many comes to the East Port (i.e., gate) of Leith, where lay two great pieces of ordnance, and where their enemies were known to be, and cried to his fellows that were at the gate making defence: “Ware Before!” and so fires one great piece, and thereafter the other.’ The cry of ‘Beware before’ — Look out in front — was, of course, the signal for the defenders of the gate to drop to the ground in order that the guns might be fired over them.
The situation is not dissimilar to that of the golfer intending to drive over the head of someone on the fairway in front, and the way in which the military signal ‘Ware before!’ might in the course of time be cut down to “Fore!” needs no explaining. ‘Look out in front!’ It is the most democratic of shouts, which no one dares to let pass unheeded. During an Open Championship at Sandwich many summers ago, I saw a future King of England scurrying apologetically off the fairway in response to a distant bellow of “Fore!” from one of our less distinguished professionals.
So the origin of the term is, after all, a warning cry of the Scottish military of “Ware before!” to signal to those in front that they should, “git yurrr hed duwn if ya dunna care t’ be feelin’ a rrright smarrrt boomp!” But not in so many words.

When you’re out on the course and you think your shot might endanger another golfer, or you are trying to signal to them to, “Ware before!” sing out loud and clear with the most democratic of shouts, a term that all golfers will recognize: “FORE!”

Wherefore Fore?