The Etymological Heritage of Golf and Golfers Can Be Surprising
Many of us growing up with the game of golf had an image of something very mono-cultural, mono-racial, and mono-economic in our minds. We know that isn’t true in modern times, but I was surprised to find that it wasn’t true in our distant youth, either. As it turns out, being an international game can go back in time as well as covering present-day geography. Although I’m not yet practiced enough to trace some of the Asian names on tour, I’ll get there. Meanwhile, here are some surprising examples we may not have considered.
I did not realize that Fred Couples’ family had their name changed from Coppola when they arrived in this country. I knew that Jason Day had roots in the Philippines, but didn’t know that he is Irish-Australian on his father’s side. Tiger? An appropriate name for such an aggressive player back in the day, but historically accurate? No. Eldrick Tont Woods, son of Earl and Kultida Woods, can add Thai, Chinese, and Dutch roots to his African-American heritage.
Nicklaus and Palmer? They must have simply sprung from the Pennsylvanian and Ohioan earth with no link to the past. For anyone who grew up seeing PGA golf as thoroughly old world American, take note that Jack Nicklaus is of German descent, and that his mother’s maiden name was “Schoener.” The word “Schoene” means “beautiful” in German…like his game. Palmer can be traced back to Old French, and signifies “a pilgrim who has returned from the Holy Land.” It also means “palm branch,” but that’s just because pilgrims carried them to commemorate their journeys. In the case of Tony Lima, his etymological roots precede the Incas. The originals of the region were the Itchyma, but I’m not sure they were golfers.
Here’s one that’s dear to my heart. I have always joked that Seve Ballesteros is really Zorro, and part of me believes it to this day.Â An ancient translation of Ballesteros is, get this, “Noble defender of the people.” Ha! I knew it! I just knew it! Then there is John Daly, a derivative of Old English “Dale,” or “An assembly in the valley.” People certainly do assemble when Big John tees it up in the valley. I have always known that the name Jones is Welsh, but I didn’t know that it translates to “John’s child.” Bobby Jones’ father was “Colonel” Robert Purmedus Jones, but I guess you can’t always hit it out of the park. Well, maybe golfers like John Daly can.
Gene Sarazen came from a Sicilian family named Saraceni. I haven’t pinned that one down yet, but Sarazen denotes a nomadic Arab. Hogan was even more surprising, having a Navajo heritage, either a “Navajo dwelling,” or the “grandson of Ogan,” a name found in India. Billy Casper was a lot of fun. Casper is a Scandinavian/Persian word for “treasurer.” Who knew that those two areas of the world ever chatted? The Dutch form of Casper is “jasper.” In old rural America, a jasper was a con man. Well, with Billy’s great putting, he stole a few, especially from Hogan who would have liked to have putting eliminated from the game entirely. Notah Begay’s people had to think quickly when English administrators asked their names, because his people used a different format. So, Begay or “biye” became “son,” or “son of.”
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And what about female golfers? Ko is apparently a Buddhist word from Sanskrit. Its meaning? “An enormous passage of time, the next thing to eternity.” I don’t know about that one. Lydia was winning on tour at the age of 14, and she didn’t take too long getting around to it.Â Brooke Henderson could come from a number of sources. Some of the Hendersons are really the Henrysons, while others hail from a great Scottish family in the Lowlands. That might fit. The German origins are Heim (home) and ric (ruler). When her game is hitting on all cylinders, I’ll go with that one. And finally Paula Creamer, going all the way back to the Gaelic, “Mac Threinfir.” I’ve pronounced that every way I can think of, but I’m still not getting “Creamer” out of it. Anyway, it apparently means, “strong man, or woman.”
So, what’s in a name? When we look closely, we come from everywhere, and have had a lot of languages try to identify us. After that, it’s difficult to think of golf and golfers as a mono-anything. We’re not only an international brotherhood and sisterhood. As it turns out, we’ve been that way for centuries.