Dentist Commercialized the Wooden Golf Tee


The booming drives that will be launched next week during the PGA Championship have at least one thing in common with the hooks and slices that plague weekend hackers: They all start with the ball on a simple golf tee, invented just miles from where the world's best golfers will play the final major of the season.
The roots of the modern-day tee trace to New Jersey, where a dentist who didn't like using a mound of dirt as a tee tinkered in his garage until he found a better way to elevate a golf ball.
Dirt tees were the accepted method for several centuries. That didn't suit Dr. William Lowell, a member of the Maplewood Country Club, who disliked the process of mixing sand and water.
Maplewood is only a few miles from the Baltusrol Golf Club, site of this year's PGA Championship. Play begins Thursday.
Although another dentist - Dr. George F. Grant of Boston - had patented the first wooden tee in 1899, it was not widely used since he did not market it, according to golf historians.
'This idea of a wooden golf tee sort of languished until you had Dr. William Lowell experimenting in his garage in the 1920s,' said Rand Jerris, director of the museum and archives of the United States Golf Association, in Far Hills.
While Grant's tee was a narrow cone topped with a concave rubber tip, Lowell's all-wood tee had a saucer-like platform atop the peg, similar to the shape in wide use today.
Lowell filed his application on May 5, 1922, and was granted patent No. 1,493,687 on May 13, 1924.
He also painted them red, formed the Reddy Tee Co., and hired two professional golfers, Walter Hagen and Joe Kirkwood, an Australian, to use his product in 1924 as the pair played exhibition matches.
'They were the perfect sort of showmen,' Jerris said. 'They did a great job of promoting the product.'
The pros would leave the pegs in the ground after they hit, and spectators would scramble to retrieve them, he said. Other inventors and patents soon followed.
'The transformation happened very quickly,' Jerris said. 'Within a couple years the sand tee disappeared.'
Reddy Tee has also faded into history, and USGA records indicate that Lowell eventually lost his patent after a long legal struggle.
Tees now come in many designs and materials, but the simple wooden tee remains the most popular. Some 288 patents for inventions with the words 'golf tee' in the title have been granted since 1976, said Ruth Nyblod, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Some of the newfangled designs, including one that perches the ball atop a cluster of thin plastic fibers, cost about $2. But the basic wooden tee is available for just a few pennies, making it the cheapest aspect of a game in which high-tech carbon-titanium drivers can cost hundreds of dollars.
Lowell's contribution to the game is still celebrated at Maplewood Golf Club, which is less than four miles from Baltusrol. A plaque in the main bar honors Lowell, and the men's opening day tournament in April is named for the dentist, said head pro Mickie Gallagher III.
'In honor of him, everyone tees off with wet sand on the first tee,' Gallagher said.
He cautions newcomers to avoid the little pyramid of dirt when they swing. 'Just make sure you don't do that. It might scratch your driver a little bit,' he said.
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