December 6, 2009

Thanks to George Franklin Grant, You Don't Have To Pound Sand

One Hundred and Ten Years Ago This Month, The Golf Tee Was Invented By a Boston Dentist.

Sometimes, we take the little things in life as though they were for granted, as if they had always been there. Such is the case of the lowly golf tee, a part of our golf bags that most of us hardly ever think twice about -- they've been around forever, so they must have been invented at the same time as the game, right?

No, actually, golfers used to plop their ball onto a cone of wet sand before Dr. George Franklin Grant invented the wooden tee.

Dr. Grant was a man memorable for many things. The son of former slaves, the Oswego, N.Y. native somehow found work for his hometown dentist as a youngster. He began as many prosperous and successful men do, at the bottom. His first job for the dentist was running errands and eventually he became an an assistant in the dentist's laboratory. When he was 19, Grant moved to Boston, where he worked as a dental assistant. Two years later he enrolled in the then-new Harvard Dental School. In 1870, Grant graduated with honors, becoming just the second African-American graduate of the Dental School.

After receiving his diploma, Dr. Grant worked for the Dental School, where he worked with patients who had deformations and maladies in the roof of their mouth. Grant excelled, becoming a noted forerunner in the nascent field. He was well-regarded in the dental community internationally and eventually left Harvard to open a private practice.

Grant had a passion for golf, and even built his own course aside his home in Arlington Heights area outside Boston. Eventually, he and his family moved to the more toney area of Beacon Hill, but Grant would often return to Arlington Heights to play his beloved game of golf.

Already a patented inventor, Grant eventually grew dissatisfied with the mess and bother of the wet sand tees that were used at that time. In order to tee up a golf ball on the teebox, one had to use a cone to fashion a pile of sand, atop which the ball would be placed and then struck. These sand tees were often inconsistent and fragile, and creating one was hasslesome at best. To fix that, Dr. Grant invented a wooden peg with a gutta-percha crown -- more or less the modern tee. For his invention, he received U.S. patent No. 638,920, (click to read patent) on December 12, 1899.

Grant was not much of a businessman, and he never properly marketed his device. He died in 1910, and the wooden tee largely forgotten outside of his family until another dentist William Lowell of New Jersey, "rediscovered" Grant's invention 1921 and manufactured the 'reddy tee,' which was painted red. To market his product, Lowell gave them to popular golfers of the day, most notably Walter Hagen to play them. Hagen and others reportedly received four figure "incentives" to play with them.

Interestingly, it was Hagen's use of the Reddy Tee that led to another innovation still widely used in tournament golf today -- the gallery ropes. At an exhibition at the Shennecossett Club in Groton, Conn., Hagen teed off with Reddy Tees and fans would stampede the tee box in order to grab up the broken wooden peg Hagen left behind as a souvenir. In order to control the unruly mob, the club circled the playing area with ropes, and the gallery rope was born into modern American golf.

Today, there is probably no piece of equipment in a golfer's bag used more often than the wooden tee. As legendary pro Sam Snead once said that tees should be used even on par 3 holes because of the perfect lie that they provide. "If they let you put it on a peg," Snead said, "put it on a peg, nobody is that good!"

Thanks to Dr. George Franklin Grant, we can all do just that.


  1. Fascinating - great post. Good to hear about the history of the game and equipment.

  2. I love this article! I love golf history, you write it with more art than the usual history book. Thanks!


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