The sports world is full of odd and unusual terminology. Putting the ball through an opponent’s legs is known as a “nutmeg” in both soccer and basketball. Hockey players commonly “deke” defenders, faking them out to get by. The MLB has a whole idiom devoted just to describing hit balls, with terms like “can of corn” and “frozen rope.”
One of the most distinctive pieces of sports terminology comes from the world of golf. Players commonly yell the word “fore” before striking a ball. Yet while virtually everybody has heard it yelled before, few know what it means or where it came from. Let’s closer look at three common theories as to why golfers yell fore.
The John Knox theory
Some golf historians contend that the cry of fore dates back to the 16th century. As evidence, they point to the Scottish protestant reformer John Knox. In one of his writings, Knox relates a story about the tactics used to defend the city of Leith. When an enemy approached, one of the defenders would cry out, “Ware Before!” This warned his fellows to lay down so the guns could fire over their head.
Over time, the warning of “Ware Before!” was whittled down to the simpler “Fore!” This theory is strengthened by the fact that, in the 16th century, one of Leith’s forts overlooked the Leith Links Golf Course. This makes it more believable that golfers picked up the phrase for their own use. However, many contemporary historians consider this story implausible.
A related military theory
A similar theory holds that the term “fore” harkens back to the days of musket warfare. These guns took an especially long time to reload. After the front row of soldiers fired their weapons, the rows behind them would take turns firing. Historians speculate that soldiers used fore as a warning to those in the front to protect their heads while the back ranks fired.
Unlike the John Knox theory, however, this story has little historical evidence to back it up. For one thing, historical records yield little evidence of related terms being used as warnings. Furthermore, there is no plausible link to golf. Many commentators speculate that this explanation is simply a watered-down version of the John Knox story.
The forecaddie theory
Today’s golf balls are mass-produced and cost relatively little. Yet in the early centuries of the sport, golf balls were difficult to make and hence expensive. To reduce the likelihood of a lost ball, golfers employed “forecaddies” to stand down-hole to see where the ball landed. Modern golf tournaments have spotters who fulfill a similar role.
Historians assume golfers would call out to their forecaddies to warm them before hitting a ball. In this theory, the cry of “Forecaddie!” gradually got shortened to just “Fore!” Because the term “forecaddie” has plenty of historical documentation, this theory is the most plausible and widely accepted explanation.
The uses and abuses of fore today
Yelling fore is a safety measure that virtually all golfers understand. Yet this doesn’t mean they always extend the courtesy. In 2018, golfer Rory McIlroy took massive amounts of flack for not yelling fore in the third round of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. As a result of his oversight, McIlroy ultimately hit three innocent bystanders.
At the other end of the spectrum are golfers who yell fore with a little too much enthusiasm. Pro golfer Ian Poulter is the perfect example. He let loose an earthshaking fore at the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Poulter proves that erring too far on the side of caution can be just as much of a shock to anybody standing at close range.