Origins of the Golf Term 'Dormie'

Was It Invented by Mary Queen of Scots? (And Other Theories)

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots
Did Mary Queen of Scots have anything to do with the golf term 'dormie'?. Culture Club/Getty Images

"Dormie" is a match play term that means the leading golfer's margin is the same as the number of holes remaining; for example, 3-up with three holes to play. Where does the word come from? That's been a matter of some debate in golf over the years.

'Dormie' Probably Arose from a French Word

The English word "dormie," as it is used in golf, probably arose out of the French word dormir. This is the origin story endorsed by the USGA Museum.

"Dormir" means "to sleep." "Dormie" means that a golfer has reached a match-play lead that is insurmountable (at least in matches in which halves are in use), and so the player can, in a manner of speaking, relax, knowing that he cannot lose the match. "Dormir" (to sleep) turns into "dormie" (relax, you can't lose). (Although golfers who have "gone dormie" can still fail to win if their opponent manages to halve the match.)

Did Mary Queen of Scots Have Anything to Do With It?

There are some legends floating around that Mary Queen of Scots had something to do with introducing the term "dormie" to golf. And the idea actually has the veneer of plausibility:

  • Mary played golf (she may be the earliest known female golfer);
  • And French was Mary's language.

Alas, there is no evidence—no reason at all to believe—that Mary coined the term or used the word dormir in a golf context, which then became "dormie." 

Mary's husband certainly went dormir, though. In 1567, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was murdered. Another golf legend about Mary is that she was notified of her husband's murder while she was on the links playing golf.

It's a fun legend that dormie is credited to Mary Queen of Scots, but there's no reason (beyond that it's fun) to believe the legend.

Then There's the Doormice Theory

Here's a theory that's also fun, and it comes out of The Historical Dictionary of Golf. While also citing the dormir theory for the origins of dormie, the book's authors write:

"... it may have originated in Scotland, where doormice, or dormies, are small rodents that inhabit the heaths. They are quite reclusive, and a doormice sighting is said to be good luck, hence the term."

Many dictionaries list the etymology of "dormie" as unknown. But some do try to trace back its earliest known usage. The earliest date we've seen is 1847, cited by Merriam-Webster.

It's also worth noting that "dormie house" is the term for a building at a golf club where golfers can get overnight lodging (most clubs don't have such a facility, but some do). That again ties into the dormir theory, and given that one of golf's governing bodies endorses it, the preponderance of evidence supports that origin story.