‘It’s such a simple thing,’ said John Spitzer, managing director of equipment standards for the United States Golf Association. ‘I’m amazed that so many people spend so much time and energy on trying to change it.’
The simple thing to which he refers is the humble golf tee, a peg made of wood (or plastic, or compressed cornstarch or similar unrecognizable material) that most of us grab by the handful or buy for a few pennies each, stick in our pockets, and don’t give a second thought to.
A moderate-sized country club will spend in the neighborhood of $1,000 a year on tees, short and long, which it treats as a complimentary amenity, no different from the water in the fountain or the soap by the sink.
It’s an unusual commodity, tangential but ubiquitous, as much a part of the fabric of the game as the ball and flagstick. Yet it is also a mite, an inconsequential piece of nothing, and its place in golf history is younger than three of the four major championships.
The word ‘tee’ appears in the earliest known ‘Rules of Golf,’ devised by the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers in 1744, but the reference is to the starting place of a hole, and to a raised point of turf or dirt on which the ball was placed. Until the 20th century, little mounds were formed by a player or his caddie, using sand kept in a box for the purpose (hence, ‘tee box’) and moistened with water.
The road to the tee as we know it began with a Boston-area dentist named George F. Grant, who received a patent in 1899 for ‘an Improvement in Golf-Tees.’ Grant was the first African-American to graduate from what is now called the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and in his profession he spent every day contemplating a flat-topped structure anchored by roots stuck deep into a surface.
Grant’s tees consisted of a small piece of rubber tubing attached to a tapered wooden peg to be pushed into the ground. The rubber held the ball invitingly, and yielded when the club contacted it. He had them produced by a nearby manufacturing concern and gave them out to his friends but never tried to sell or market them.
That fell to William Lowell -another tooth doctor, coincidentally-who created the Reddy Tee in 1921. It was a one-piece implement of solid wood, painted red at the top so it could be easily found and cleverly named. He paid Walter Hagen and trick-shot artist Joe Kirkwood to endorse and use the device, and it was a commercial success, with more than $100,000 in sales by the time it was patented in 1925. His son, William Lowell, Jr., was responsible for another ubiquitous American invention when he helped develop the first six-pack carton for the Union Bag Company.
The tee itself is largely unchanged today, and its manufacture-though wholly mechanized and speeded up considerably-is essentially still a matter of taking a piece of wood and carving it into shape.
PrideSports, makers of the Pride Golf Tee as well as Black Widow Grips and Softspikes, is the largest tee manufacturer in the world. At its factory in Burnham, Maine, hardwoods (primarily white birch purchased from managed forests in the state) are stripped of their bark and cut into boards for drying. The boards are then cut into dowels, which are turned on a lathe and shaped into tees, then cut, fed into a sander and painted. An 8-foot log 8 to 10 inches in diameter will produce 3,000 tees; the factory can turn out more than two million tees a day.
The simplicity of the implement hasn’t kept others from developing more elaborate variations. One of the earliest inspirations was a peg shaped like a naked woman, the kind Rodney Dangerfield buys in the pro shop in ‘Caddyshack.’ Such novel-tees were often marketed with the phrase, ‘Guaranteed to help you keep your head down!’ and a cartoon image of a wolfish golfer with his eyes bulging out of his skull. Golf humor may have a bad reputation, but it has earned it.
Today, innovators focus on more direct claims of performance enhancement. Tees with bristles and tees with prongs or tees coated with Teflon are sold by companies claiming the reduced friction will give the golfer greater distance. But the rules of golf state that a tee may not ‘unduly influence the movement of the ball.’ This pretty much rules out half-cup tees designed to prevent sidespin, and all others that purport to improve performance. At impact, an average of 1,700 pounds of force are transferred through the clubface to the ball in the span of .00045 second. If you believe the frictional differences between prongs or bristles and the usual wooden platform will result in a noticeable change in distance, I have a titanium-faced bridge I’d like to sell you.
‘We examine and evaluate the claims made by manufacturers or inventors as they relate to the rules of golf,’ said the USGA’s Spitzer, who has reviewed more than 200 design modifications for the tee since 2009. ‘Whether or not the claims about performance are true is a matter for the FTC.’
In other words-mine-if a tee improved performance it wouldn’t conform to the rules, and if it conformed to the rules it wouldn’t improve performance.