Today’s History Lesson: Music and Sports – How Golf’s Bogey Got Its Name, and Who Colonel Bogey Really Was

Bandmaster Lt. J.F. Ricketts, composer of  "The Colonel Bogey March."

Bandmaster Lt. J.F. Ricketts, composer of “The Colonel Bogey March.”

By the time Lieutenant J.F. Ricketts wrote “The Colonel Bogey March” in 1914, the fictitious Colonel Bogey was already the presiding spirit of golf links in Britain. This is the story of how Ricketts’s famous song was written, and of how the bogey came to mean one over par in golf.

Let’s go back, first, to a popular British song of the late 19th century. The “Bogey Man,” who lived in the shadows, was the star of said song. It went “I’m the Bogey man, catch me if you can.” “Bogle” had been the term for a Scottish goblin since the 16th Century. A Bogey-man was a popular term for a goblin or devil.

In 1890, Hugh Rotherham, secretary of the Coventry, England Golf Club, proposed standardizing the number of shots at each hole that a good golfer should take. He called that number the “ground score.” A Dr. Browne, Secretary of the Great Yarmouth Club, adopted the idea. Great Yarmouth used it in match play. During one competition, a Major Charles Wellman exclaimed to Dr. Browne, “This player of yours is a regular Bogey man.”

In Yarmouth and elsewhere the ground score became known as the Bogey score. So it was, originally, the measure of a well-played round of golf. Golfers of the time thought that they were playing against “Mister Bogey” when measuring themselves against the bogey score. They would, as the song went, try to catch the Bogey man. Bogey was interchangeable with the word “par.”

In 1892, Colonel Seely-Vidal, the Secretary of the United Services Club at Gosport, worked out the “Bogey” for his course. All members of the United Club had a military rank, and they felt they could not measure themselves against a “Mister” Bogey or have him as a member. So they gave him the honorary rank of Colonel, and “Colonel Bogey” was born.

Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa in "Bridge on the River Kwai," the movie that introduced a generation of Americans to "The Colonel Bogey March."

Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa in “Bridge on the River Kwai,” the movie that introduced a generation of Americans to “The Colonel Bogey March.”

Lieutenant Ricketts (1881-1945) was a British army bandmaster who later became director of music for the Royal Marines at Plymouth. He published “Colonel Bogey” and his other compositions under the pseudonym Kenneth Alford, because service personnel were not supposed to have jobs outside of the military.

The tune was said to have been inspired by a military man who was also a golfer. That golfer did not shout “Fore” when it was called for. Instead, he whistled a two-note phrase, a descending interval which begins each line of the march’s melody.

The bogey got demoted to its present one-over-par status in the early 20th century. Although the first noted use of the word “Par” in golf was in Britain and predates that of Bogey. “Par” comes from a stock exchange term – a stock may be priced above or below its normal or “par” figure.

In 1870, a British golf writer asked golf professionals David Strath and James Anderson, what score would win “The Belt,” which was the winning trophy for “The Open” at Prestwick. Strath and Anderson said that perfect play should produce a score of 49 for Prestwick’s twelve holes. The writer, whose name was Doleman, called this “Par for Prestwick.”

However, the bogey scoring system as the high-performance standard would take effect in Britain first. But over Across the Pond, things were changing.

Shortly before the turn of the century, the American Women’s Golf Association began to develop a national handicapping system for women, and the Men’s Association soon followed suit. In 1911, the Men’s USGA set down the following modern distances for determining Par: Up to 225 yards, Par 3; 225 to 425 yards, Par 4; 426 to 600 yards, Par 5; and over 601 yards, Par 6.

Golf continued to improve in America, and scores started to come down. But many old British courses did not adjust their courses or their Bogey scores.

This meant that good golfers and all the professionals were achieving lower than a Bogey score. The United States had an up-to-date national standard of distances for holes, but the British Bogey ratings were determined by each club and were no longer appropriate for professionals.

Americans began referring to one over Par as a Bogey, much to British chagrin.

And now you know the rest of the story.

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