February 7, 2008

A language all our own

The word "stymie" -- which means "prevent or hinder the progress of" -- was originally only a golf term, having to do with a ball that blocked another ball's path to the hole. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1857; it concerns wooden putters, which, apparently, could impart enough sidespin to a 19th-century golf ball to cause it "to pass the stimy." The rule book dropped stymies in 1952. My Sunday-morning golf buddies and I keep them alive, sort of, by using them in playoffs.

We also have invented several golf terms. An "underwood," for example, is a shot that appears to be heading into the trees or out-of-bounds but hits a branch, root, stone, golf cart, squirrel, or low-flying aircraft and ends up in the middle of the fairway. It was named for our current club champion, who has a long, bothersome history of lucky bounces (in addition to being the club's best putter, chipper, ball-striker, and so forth). The rest of us will often shout "Underwood!" just before a shot of ours reaches whatever trouble it's heading for; sometimes, that works.

A gillen is what you get if you make the unmatched worst score on any hole.

A "gillen" is the opposite of a skin -- it's a negative skin. It's what you get, in our version of the game, if you make the unmatched worst score on any hole. Gillens were invented by Tim, who had been irritated by Gillen's habit of playing miserably for nine or 10 holes and then scooping up all the carryovers with an improbable net birdie. Gillen himself once earned a gillen for a par, on a short hole where everyone else -- after a remarkable succession of long bombs and chip-ins -- made a birdie.

One Sunday, I played in a group that included Schoon. He had a one-foot par putt, which, for some reason, no one had given him. He made a bad stroke and managed to advance the ball only four inches. The remaining distance -- 0.2032 meters -- is now treated locally as a unit of golf measurement, called a "schoon." (A two-foot putt is three schoons long.) Schoons are especially useful in setting the official gimme distance. Before we tee off on Sunday, for example, Hacker (real name) might announce: "Mulligan on the first tee, play everything down, and schoons are good for everyone but Schoon."