The question came up on the course this morning and nobody knew where it came from:
“Fore” – actually, fore! – is a word of warning yelled out by a golfer who has hit an errant shot. If your shot is in danger of hitting or landing very close to another player or group of players on the golf course (for instance, if you slice a ball into an adjoining fairway), you should yell “fore!” to warn players to watch out.
Yelling “fore!” is considered good etiquette, but it’s not just a courtesy to other golfers, it can serve to prevent injury. After all, a golf ball striking a person can do serious damage.
Perhaps the most common usage of fore is when golfers hit the ball farther than expected, or when they play their stroke without realizing that there is a golfer up ahead who might be in danger. Next would be with hooks and slices on tight golf courses, where holes are close together and a curving shot might fly into or run into an adjoining fairway.
At professional tournaments, where holes are tightly lined by fans, it’s common to hear tour pros yell “fore right” or “fore left,” letting the fans known which direction the ball is traveling. That way, the fans on the left side or right side of the hole know to take cover.
“Fore” is another word for “ahead” (think of a ship’s fore and aft). Yelling “fore” is simply a shorter way to yell “watch out ahead” (or “watch out before”). It allows golfers to be forewarned, in other words.
The British Golf Museum cites an 1881 reference to “fore” in a golf book, establishing that the term was already in use at that early date (the USGA suggests the term may have been in use as early as the 1700s). The museum also surmises that the term evolved from “forecaddie.”
A forecaddie is a person who accompanies a group around the golf course, often going forward to be in a position to pinpoint the locations of the groups’ shots. If a member of the group hit an errant shot, the thinking goes, they may have alerted the forecaddie by yelling out the term. It was eventually shorted to just “fore.”
A popular theory is that the term has a military origin. In warfare of the 17th and 18th century (a time period when golf was really taking hold in Britain), infantry advanced in formation while artillery batteries fired from behind, over their heads. An artilleryman about to fire would yell “beware before,” alerting nearby infantrymen to drop to the ground to avoid the shells screaming overhead.
So when golfers misfired and send their missiles – golf balls – screaming off target, “beware before” became shortened to “fore.”