- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2003

Several months ago, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington was posed the following riddle:

“I am the shortest stick in your bag, but without me you dare not use the longest. I start every hole but rarely finish any round. What am I?”

After several seconds of bemused silence, the world’s 9th-ranked golfer chuckled and admitted he was stumped.

The answer, of course, is the tee, golf’s most overlooked, under appreciated accouterment.

Harrington’s oversight is fairly standard among both pros and amateurs alike. In a game that requires as much preparation and mental exertion as golf, few folks bother pondering the simple pegs that have been supporting golf balls for the better part of a century. But in the U.S. alone this year, the National Golf Foundation estimates that golfers will use roughly 3 billion of these basic little beauties.

Perhaps Bob Burr, senior vice president of golf tee goliath Pride Manufacturing, best summed up the import of his product: “Without the tee, you can’t really play the game.”

Sand and water

The origins of the tee are nearly as old as the game itself. In golf’s 16th-century infancy, it was decided that for at least the first shot on each hole, a player should have a favorable lie. Originally, players were allowed to make a small mound of earth on which to place the ball for their tee shot within one club-length of the previous green.

By the late 1700s, golfers began carrying pouches of moistened sand with which to fashion tees. In fact, there is some evidence that the concept of the caddie evolved around this task. With only several clubs to tote, the physical labor involved in carrying one’s clubs was of little concern. Of greater necessity was the location of errant shots and the chore of tee-making. It was thought to be somewhat unseemly for a gentleman to drop to his hands and knees and dirty his hands in this fashion. This was a job for a cad (see French cadet), usually a boy from the common class.

Eventually, courses began supplying trays of sand and water on each hole for the purposes of tee-making, and thus were born the first tee markers.

According to Irwin R. Valenta, the foremost expert on tees in the world and the author of “The Singular History of the Golf Tee,” the first portable tee was patented by Scots William Bloxsom and Arthur Douglas on Aug. 16, 1889. It was a disc made of India rubber which looked somewhat like a baseball diamond with three tiny rubber prongs located where home plate would be that were designed to support the ball.

“That tee, along with some 30 years of tees which followed and were made of everything from paper and cardboard to leather, lead and wire, never took off,” said the 91-year-old Valenta in a recent interview. “The sand and water tradition was simply too deeply rooted in the golfing culture. It wasn’t until Dr. William Lowell crafted his wooden peg in 1921 that the little critters started to take hold.”

The Reddy Tee

A dentist from South Orange, N.J., whose first love was tennis, Lowell took up golf at 60 when his age began to show on the court. The tee as we know it might never have been born had Lowell, who also was a concert violinist, not had such an aversion to the sand-and-water teeing method which he found unsanitary, messy and rough on his highly skilled hands.

In 1921, Lowell whittled a ground-piercing wood peg using his dental instruments. He place a small dollop of gutta percha on the tip of the tee which he depressed to fit the convexity of the golf ball.

Interestingly, a somewhat similar ground-piercing wooden design had been invented by another American dentist, Dr. G.F. Grant of Boston, in 1899. Grant did apply for and receive a patent, and some have mistakenly credited him with the invention of the tee. But Grant’s tee looked more like a cone and was never marketed, leaving experts like Valenta firmly entrenched in the Lowell camp.

“Grant’s tee never went anywhere,” Valenta said. “Everybody used sand and water for more than 20 years after. Regardless, it didn’t look anything like today’s tees, whereas Lowell’s was almost identical.”

While agreeing with Valenta’s sentiments from above, Lowell’s granddaughter posited an interesting theory on the coincidence of both Grant and Lowell being dentists.

“Subliminally, I think they were both thinking of a tooth,” said Joan Lowell Smith, the daughter of William Jr., Lowell’s younger son.

Originally, Lowell had no intention of marketing his design. And he received an inordinate amount of grief from fellow members at Maplewood Country Club.

“When he walked out with his little tee, they chided him and called it a suppository for wildcats,” said Smith, explaining that her father and his brother, Ernest, eventually prodded Lowell to the patent office. “I think what pushed him over the edge was when they convinced him he might make some money off it. My grandfather certainly wasn’t an altruist.”

Lowell patented his tee in 1922 and ordered a shipment of 5,000 from a turning mill in Norway, Maine. The original tees were 1¼ inches long (today’s standard tee is 2⅛), made of pine and painted green. Lowell made this last decision because he never imagined that players would attempt to retrieve the tees, and he didn’t want club owners and head professionals angered over littered tee boxes. Therefore, the tees came in boxes of 18 for a quarter.

Players liked the concept but were frustrated by two characteristics of Lowell’s trial tees; not only did the pine bend and split easily, but the green color, as intended, made it very difficult for them to locate and reuse the pegs. Armed with this knowledge, Lowell put in a second order for a batch of 50,000 tees made of white birch (the same wood used today) and painted red. Thus was born the Reddy Tee, the first mass-marketed tee in the game’s history.

Despite the perfected product, the golf world still didn’t seem ready for the Reddy Tee. The principal obstacle standing between Lowell and economic success was the club pro. For years, courses had been supplying the sand and water trays, and club pros were loathe to supply their members with the expensive new trinkets they considered a threat to tradition, their mowers and their wallets.

So Lowell and his sons took a new tack, mailing the tees to the noted professionals of the day at the start of the 1923 season. The tee’s big break came later that year when Walter Hagen, then professional golf’s flamboyant standard-bearer, showed up at Lowell’s office in a chauffeured limo looking to refresh his supply of the tees.

“My grandfather wasn’t the most likable man, but he sure was clever,” said Smith. “He signed Hagen to a $1,500 contract on the spot.”

Hagen and several other pros were instructed by Lowell to leave the tees on each hole they played. The Reddy Tees became treasured souvenirs for golf spectators, who were often so zealous in scrambling after the pegs that gallery ropes were born around tee boxes to prevent injuries. Once Lowell’s tees became a staple with the pros, Reddy Tees became a must-carry item at both pro shops and sporting goods stores.

In 1929, at the height of the Reddy Tee’s popularity, the Lowell family operated four turning mills, two in the U.S., one in Canada and one in London, and turned a profit of more than $200,000, nearly $5 million in today’s dollars at a time when the rest of the economy was a shambles.

In a tragic turn, however, Lowell’s patent was particularly weak. And when a flood of imitators flocked to the market with excruciatingly similar products, Lowell squandered the family fortune on legal fees in one fruitless effort to protect his invention after another. By 1933, his company was virtually bankrupt, and Lowell returned to dentistry fulltime.

It would be more than two decades before a new tee titan would surface. And once again, it would be the foresight of two sons that made a father a fortune.

Pride manufacturing

In the mid-1950s, the sons of Fletcher Pride, a successful businessman noted for his invention and production of the wooden cigar tips used in Hav-a-Tampa Jewel Cigars, convinced their father to dedicate a portion of his turning mill to the production of the golf tee. Both the size and the wood used to make the cigar tips was exactly the same as required to make golf tees, and the transition was virtually seamless.

Nearly 50 years later, a staggering 85 percent of the tees made in the world are turned at Pride’s mills in Florence, Wis., and Burnham, Maine.

After years of secrecy and seclusion, Pride recently opened its doors to The Washington Times a la Willy Wonka, giving us a step-by-step tour of the Burnham mill that cranks out millions of tees a day.

“We’ve got proprietary equipment, so we’re very careful about cameras,” said Dan Tilton, one of Pride’s top sales executives. “The tooling was all made by us. We designed it, and we maintain it with no outside help. That’s one of our great advantages. You can’t decide you want to start making tees and buy the technology off the shelf.”

For years, outsiders speculated that Pride’s secrecy was based upon environmental concerns, rather than that unique tooling. After all, the company uses hundreds of thousands of board feet a year of white birch.

“We feel very good about our position on the environment,” Tilton said. “With the cutting laws we have now, basically everybody has to be managing their forests correctly. And one of the unique things about the birch tree is it’s considered a weed tree. It’s the fastest growing hardwood tree in existence.

“One of the unique things about white birch is that it’s fairly solid, but it also has a natural resin in it, which allows us to turn it at a very, very high rate of speed. If, say, you tried to make tees out of maple, you wood have to drop oil on the wood while it was turning to keep it from burning. Pine is too soft and would bind and bend. The white birch is the perfect turning wood. You can literally turn hundreds of pieces a minute without any problems.”

And one look around the Pride mill and factory is enough to dispel any concerns about waste. Literally every scrap of each birch tree is saved for some purpose. The sawdust is collected for animal bedding. The bark is stripped and converted into gardening mulch. And the superfluous shards, splinters and defective tees are burned to power the factory.

As for profits, Pride is still close-mouthed about financial matters. But it’s safe to assume tee-making isn’t quite the boon it was in Lowell’s day. After all, Lowell’s tees sold for more than a penny apiece 75 years ago. Today, you can buy a standard tee for a nickel, hardly a major jump relative to seven decades of inflation.

“It’s definitely a high volume, low margin business,” said Tilton, who is enthused about the trend toward the longer 23/4-inch tees necessitated by the proliferation of whale-headed drivers dominating the equipment industry. “That’s the most exciting development in the tee industry in decades.”

Wow, and you thought your job was a bit dull.

Basically, there’s just no way to make the lowly tee sexy, even though tees today come in myriad colors, lengths and even mediums. One Indiana-based company called Eco Golf makes tees predominantly out of a byproduct of corn fermentation and calcium.

“I’m not a tree-hugger by any means,” said Eco Golf founder Todd Baker. “But our tees degrade in about a year, which is about twice as fast as a traditional wooden tee. They’re easier on mower blades. They’re slightly cheaper. And whether you call a white birch a weed tree or not, you’re still cutting down trees. Our product is just an alternative. That said, we’re certainly not saving the world. Let’s face it, man, it’s just a tee.”

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