Many golfers might imagine that the design of the traditional wooden golf tee dates all the way back to the origins of the sport in eighteenth century Scotland. In fact, however, the golf tee as we know it is one of the most recent additions to the game.
Before the twentieth century, most golfers rested their balls on top of small piles of sand, earth, or sometimes snow. Some courses provided sand boxes for players to use; in others, caddies would simply dig soil from nearby holes. “Tee” in these days was the name for the area from which players could swing, generally a circle of one club-length around the last hole, later expanded to four club-lengths. In fact, our word “tee” comes from the Scots Gaelic “tigh,” meaning house, and may also be related to the Dutch “tuitje.”
The first portable, re-usable golf tees were developed near the end of the nineteenth century, and they came in a bewildering array of designs. At first, most golf tees rested on top of the ground, rather than penetrating it as they do today. One of the first tees designed to be pushed into the ground was invented by Dr. George F. Grant, an African American dentist. The bottom of Grant’s tee would look familiar to any golfer today, but the top was flat, which made placing the ball more difficult.
Until the 1920s, most golfers simply ignored these innovations and continued teeing up on piles of sand. In 1921, however, Dr. William Lowell (also a dentist) developed the “Reddy Tee,” the first commercially successful manufactured tee in golfing history. The Reddy Tee featured the same design we know today. It was made of wood, with the cup at the top painted red to improve visibility. A few years later, the Nieblo Manufacturing Company brought out a similar model in white celluloid.
Interestingly, though, the Reddy Tee didn’t spread around the world based on superior design alone. In fact, Lowell’s greatest innovation may have been in the realm of publicity. Like major sporting goods manufactures do today, Lowell offered sponsorship deals to professional golfers. With well-known personalities like Walter Hagen and Joe Kirkwood Sr. using Reddy Tees at public exhibition matches, the dam finally broke and amateur golfers the world over exchanged their sand piles for wooden tees.
Today, re-usable tees have conquered the world, though there are still a few traditionalist holdouts, like Oakhurst Links in West Virginia, America’s oldest golf course, where golfers continue to tee up on piles of wet sand.