The Great War was on. It was 1914 and British PGA founding member Albert Tingey organized a group of like-minded golf professionals to support the British effort in World War I. Aided by George Duncan, who went on to win the Open Championship in 1920, and Charles Mayo, who won the 1911 Belgium Open, a group of 26 golf professionals and assistants joined the 13th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. Tingey dubbed it the Niblick Brigade.
Like bayonets for the modern soldier, the niblick as standard golf equipment is now a thing of the past, eclipsed long ago by technology. While its origins are murky, it remains a useful part of both the golf lexicon and the bags of true golf traditionalists.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines the niblick as “an iron (formerly wooden) golf club, originally one with a relatively short face and subsequently applied to most lofted irons with a heavy head, used esp. for playing out of bunkers and rough ground.” The niblick is similar to today’s 9-iron or wedge—handy for getting to the green. Variations include the mashie niblick (similar to a 7-iron) and the pitching niblick (similar to an 8-iron).
The origin of niblick, like so many words, is unknown. The OED speculates that it’s related to “nib,” as in the point of a pen, in particular a fountain pen. It may just be one of many English words that don’t have a definitive origin, such as “nerd,” which some link to a Dr. Seuss creature, though that theory has never been proven. Were niblick first found 100 years later, this fanciful-sounding term might be credited to the good doctor as well.
The first known use of niblick is from British author Henry Brougham Farnie in 1857. In The Golfer’s Manual, Farnie wrote, “It is called a Niblick; has a tough yet effective driving shaft; and an exceedingly small head [and] well-spooned back.” As expected, several other golf books from the 1800s use the term. Robert Chambers’ 1862 book A Few Rambling Remarks on Golf mentioned the niblick in a passage on putter shape: “The faces of the play-club, driving-putter, and putter are planed perfectly upright and straight, or, technically, ‘square;’ those of the spoons, sand-iron, and niblick are hollowed, or ‘spooned.’” In Horace Hutchinson’s 1886 book Hints on Golf, the term becomes an adjective: “In the typical niblick shot the ball lies in a heel-mark or other cup in the sand, with the face of the bunker in front.”
As the word matured, it also got verbed from time to time. The earliest such example is from the Westminster Gazette in 1909, describing a golfer in a bunker who “would have to niblick the ball out sideways.” More recently, a 2000 issue of The Scotsman describes some potential collateral damage of an errant shot: “There are still 200 sheep out there [on Brora golf course], in constant danger of being niblicked.”
Indeed, niblick is no dusty piece of bygone trivia. As the golf professionals in the WWI trenches and the diehards in today’s hickory tournaments both learned, niblick is too valuable as a term and a tool to ever fall completely out of use.
Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeney’s, a professional etymologist and a comedian. His latest book is Bullshit: A Lexicon.