Golf Tees: A Humble Equipment's Interesting History

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Golf Tees in Play and in the Rules

Golf ball on tee and golf club on golf course
ranplett / Getty Images

Golf tees are among the humblest of golf equipment, one of the game's "supporting" characters; yet golf tees are essential for most golfers. The tee is the implement that supports the golf ball, raising it above the ground, when the ball is played from the teeing ground.

Although golfers aren't required to use a tee on tee shots, the vast majority of us do. Why hit the ball from off the ground if you don't have to? As Jack Nicklaus says, air offers less resistance than the ground.

In the official Rules of Golf, "tee" is defined thusly:

"An object used to raise a ball above the ground to play it from the teeing area. It must be no longer than 4 inches (101.6 mm) and conform with the Equipment Rules."

The governing bodies of golf - the R&A and the USGA - rule on the conformity of golf tees, same as they do for any other golf equipment. (The Equipment Rules are separate from the main rule book and set down parameters for various pieces of golf equipment.)

Modern golf tees are pegs that are pushed into the ground, usually made of wood or plastic/rubber compounds. Typically, the top end of the tee is flared and concave to support the golf ball and keep it stable and stationary; however, the design of the top of the peg can vary.

Tees may only be used when playing the first stroke of a hole from the teeing ground. An exception is when there is a penalty that requires the golfer to return to the teeing ground and replay the stroke.

How high should you tee the ball? The depends on what club you're using.

On the following pages, we take a look back at the history of the humble golf tee, noting some of the significant developments along the way.

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Sand Tees and Earlier

Golf Sand Tees
A golfer in 1921 reaches into a "tee box" to retrieve a handful of wet sand, which would then be shaped into a tee for the golf ball. Brooke / Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

Tools designed specifically for teeing a golf ball started arriving on the scene in the late 1800s (although it's safe to assume that individual golfers were experimenting with different implements before that).

How did golfers tee up their golf balls before the invention and manufacture of modern golf tees?

The earliest "tees" were just clumps of dirt. Golfers in the ancient mists of Scotland would use a club or their shoe to stab the ground, digging up a little mound of turf on which to set the golf ball.

As golf matured and became more organized, sand tees became the norm. What's a sand tee? Take a little bit of wet sand, shape it into a conical mound, place the golf ball atop the mound, and you have a sand tee.

Sand tees were still the norm into the early 1900s. Golfers typically found a box of sand on each teeing ground (which is the origin of the term "tee box"). Sometimes there was also water provided, and the golfer would wet his hand, then get a handful of sand to shape into a tee. Or the sand in the "tee box" was already wet and easily shaped.

Either way, sand tees were messy, and by the late 1800s, implements for teeing the golf ball started showing up in patent offices.

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First Golf Tee Patent

Bloxsom Douglas Golf Tee Patent
Part of the illustration accompanying the patent application of William Bloxsom and Arthur Douglas in the late 1800s. William Bloxsom and Arthur Douglas / British Patent No. 12,941

As noted, it's safe to assume that golfers who were also tinkerers and craftsmen were experimenting with different types of golf tees - devices and implements designed specifically for the task of raising and cradling the golf ball - prior to the first tee patents.

But eventually, one of those tinkerers did have to file the first patent application for a golf tee. And that person was actually two people, William Bloxsom and Arthur Douglas of Scotland.

Bloxsom and Douglas received British patent No. 12,941, issued in 1889 for "An Improved Golf Tee or Rest." The Bloxsom/Douglas tee had a flat, wedge-shaped base a couple inches from end to end, with several prongs at the narrow end of the base on which to set the golf ball. This ​tee sat on top of the ground, rather than being pressed into the ground.

The first-known tee designed to be pushed into the ground was called the "Perfectum" and was patented in 1892 by Percy Ellis of England. The Perfectum was essentially a nail with a rubber ring added to its head.

There were other patents issued during this era, as well, for both types of tees - those that sat on top of the ground, and those that pierced the ground. Many were never marketed, and none of them caught on commercially.

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George Franklin Grant's Tee

George Franklin Grant Golf Tee Patent
Part of the illustration George Franklin Grant submitted with his patent application for "an improved golf tee" in 1899. George Franklin Grant / US Patent No. 638,920

Who is the inventor of the golf tee? If you search the Web, one name you will commonly find in answer to that question is that of Dr. George Franklin Grant.

But as we've seen on previous pages, Grant did ​not invent the golf tee. What Dr. Grant did do was patent a wooden peg that pierced the ground. Grant's patent is what caused him to be recognized by the United States Golf Association in 1991 as the inventor of the wooden golf tee.

Grant's patent is United States patent No. 638,920, and he received it in 1899.

Grant was one of the first African-American graduates of the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and later became the first African-American faculty member at Harvard. His other inventions include a device to treat a cleft palate. Grant would be a historical figure worth remembering regardless of any role he played in the development of the golf tee.

But Grant's role in golf tee development was long forgotten. His wooden tee was not the familiar shape of today's tees, and the top of Grant's tee was not concave, meaning that the ball had to be carefully balanced on the flat top of the wooden peg.

Grant never manufactured the tee and never marketed it, so his tee was seen by almost no one outside his circle of friends.

And sand tees continued as the norm on golf courses for another couple decades after Grant's patent was issued.

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The Reddy Tee

Reddy Tee
A Reddy Tee (right, larger than actual size) and the retail box in which Reddy Tees were sold. Courtesy of golfballbarry; used with permission

The golf tee finally found its modern form - and its audience - with the introduction of the Reddy Tee.

The Reddy Tee was the invention of Dr. William Lowell Sr. - like Grant, a dentist - who patented his design in 1925 (U.S. Patent #1,670,627). But even before the patent was finalized, Grant had struck a deal with the Spalding Company for their manufacture.

The Reddy Tee was wood (later plastic) and Lowell's first tees were green. He later switched to red, hence the name "Reddy Tee." Lowell's tee pierced the ground and had a concave platform at the flared top that cradled the ball, holding it stably in place.

Unlike his predecessor inventors, Dr. Lowell heavily marketed his tee. The masterstroke was signing Walter Hagen in 1922 to use Reddy Tees during an exhibition tour. The Reddy Tee took off after that, Spalding started mass-producing them, and other companies started copying them.

And ever since, the basic golf tee has looked the same: A wooden or plastic peg, flared at one end, with the flared end concave to cradle the ball.

Today, there are fancier versions of tees that use bristles, tines or prongs to support the ball; that come with depth indicators on the shaft of the peg to indicate ideal ball heights; that use angled rather than straight pegs. But the majority of tees in play continue to be the same form and function as the Reddy Tee.

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The More Things Change ...

Laura Davies Tee
The oldest method of teeing the golf ball is placing it atop of clump of turf. Laura Davies still does this, gouging the teeing ground with her club to create the "tee.". David Cannon / Getty Images

Remember back on page two we noted that in olden times golfers would simply stab the earth to gouge up a chunk of turf, and "tee" the golf ball on that?

Well, everything old is new again. LPGA major champion Laura Davies uses the same technique today, as pictured in the image above. For a brief time, Michelle Wie copied Davies' technique.

But please, do not try this at home. Davies is pretty much alone in harkening back to the earliest method of teeing a golf ball. This method tears up the teeing ground, and also makes it more difficult for players less-skilled than Davies to make good, clean contact with the ball.