Origin of 'Par' in Golf

Par is an essential part of golf today, but that wasn't always the case.
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The word "par" is very important in golf, but where does it come from? Did the word start with golf itself, and spread out to general usage from there? Or did "par" originate outside of golf, and then get adopted by golfers?

The short answer: "Par" was in use for centuries before it became a golf word.

Par's General Meaning and Origins

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "par" derives from the Latin, meaning "equal" or "equality," and dates to the 16th Century.

Outside of golf, the word is often used to denote a standard level or to mean average, usual, ordinary. If something is "subpar," it is below average. If something is "on par," it is equal to or meets a set standard. And if something is "par for the course," it is typical or not unusual.

So the general meaning of par comes from Latin origins dating to the 1500s.

Par in the Golf World

The arrival of "par" in golf happened much later. Par didn't start being used by golfers until the late 19th Century.

Today we know that par refers to a standard score that golfers are trying to meet or beat, whether for a single hole or a collection of holes. If Hole No. 1 is a par-4, that means the best golfers are expected to need four strokes to play it, and 4 is the score that all golfers want to meet (or beat).

Par, to put it another way, is a target score. Most golfers are unable to meet or beat par - the vast majority of golfers can only aspire to par, and are thrilled when, on rare or scarce occasions, we shoot par on an individual hole.

How Par Entered the Golf Lexicon

When and how did "par" become a golf word?

As noted above, that didn't happen until around the time the 19th Century turned into the 20th Century. And it's tied to the origins of another golf scoring term, bogey.

In the 1890s it was bogey that golfers used to refer to the target score or ideal score. "Par" entered the golf lexicon around the same time, and was used interchangeably with bogey. But "bogey" was the more widely used of the two terms.

But by the early 1900s, the current golf meanings of the two terms started to emerge and become set. "Par" came to denote the ideal score for the best golfers (and the aspirational score for the rest of us), while "bogey" was applied to a score that recreational golfers would be happy with.

"Par" was only officially added to the golf lexicon in 1911, when the USGA defined it as "perfect play without flukes and under ordinary weather conditions, always allowing two strokes on each putting green."

Remember the general meaning of par as a standard for something. "Par" in golf became the standard score expected of scratch golfers.

The late entry of par into the golf world's lingo is why, in golf tournaments played prior to 1911 (and in some continuing for a few years after) you do not see the golf course's par rating (e.g., par 72), or any reference to golfers' scores being under-par or over-par. Because par wasn't yet universally used and understood within golf prior to that time.