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A Fowl Choice

Some call the chicken stick careful; others say it's cowardice

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Bill Murray, Pebble Beach
Bill Murray and his rubber chicken on the 14th green during the third round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, February 11, 2006, held at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, California. Photo by: Chris Condon/PGA TOUR (Photo by Chris Condon/PGA)

The aviary of golf terms is crowded, thanks to the birdie, the eagle and the albatross. But a less-majestic bird also escaped the coop and found its way to the links: the chicken. 

As Merrill Perlman wrote for a Visual Thesaurus article on golf slang, “…a ‘chicken stick’ is the safer club used for a difficult shot when the choice is between the obvious club and a more heroic, but riskier, club. The player is ‘chicken’ and takes the easy way out.” That usually means choosing accuracy over distance, so in theory a chicken stick could be just about anything other than a driver. 

The age of this term in golf is unclear, but it’s become much more popular in the vernacular with the rise of TV analyst David Feherty. Not surprisingly, “chicken stick” is one of his pet terms. A Usenet post from 1996 associates it with Feherty’s wit: “Feherty has a great sense of humor. I really liked him on the CBS coverage of the BellSouth the week prior to the Masters. In fact, the best line I’ve heard in a long time was when Tolles (I think) was teeing off with a 2-iron, and DF says, ‘He’s going to hit the chicken stick.’ Even [Gary] McCord doesn’t make me laugh like that.” 

Garson O’Toole, author of Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, shared another Usenet association of chicken stick and Feherty (this time from 1999) on the American Dialect Society listserv. So while Feherty may not have coined the term, he certainly spread it thanks to his TV exposure. 

The two slangy halves of this term have a longer history. Chickens have been used as symbols of cowardice since the days of Shakespeare, figuring in many expressions, such as “chickenhearted” and “playing chicken.” Meanwhile, “stick” has been a colloquial term for a longish piece of sporting equipment, such as a golf club or baseball bat, since the 1500s. 

Outside the links, Cornell University professor Robert C. Baker coined “chicken stick” in 1963 to name a predecessor to the Chicken McNugget. On virtual links, Chicken Stick is the name of an accessory for the Tiger Woods PGA Tour Nintendo Wii games. Another golf term, “chicken run,” is unrelated to chicken stick. As golf journalist Brent Kelley explains on ThoughtCo, a chicken run is “a golf tournament (such as a league or association outing) that is 9-holes and played late in the afternoon, typically after the end of the workday.” In South Africa, the winners, naturally, receive a chicken dinner.

Whether in a chicken run or a PGA Tour event, use of a chicken stick could sink your chances of winning. That was the attitude of Justin Rose, who discussed his victory in the 2011 BMW Championship with The New York Times: “Either I was going to fritter it away or make something happen to win the tournament. That’s how it felt. I nearly took the chicken stick out there and putted it on 17, and I had a little chat with myself. I kind of said to myself, I was very aware, very conscious, and I said these are the moments where tournaments are won.”

A chicken stick can be a sign of cowardice or prudence, depending on one’s skills and perspective. Because, for many golfers, the alternative to the chicken stick is the catastrophe club. 

Mark Peters is a word nerd and humorist. He writes columns about euphemisms for Visual Thesaurus and legendary comic-book creator Jack Kirby for Comicosity.