Of the golf paraphernalia we use each day, the most taken for granted piece of equipment is our wooden golf tee. It lacks the technological wizardry and the marketing hype but it serves us faithfully eighteen times a round. Made me wonder where it came from and why it has not changed very much over time.
If you go back to the black and white images of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s you will notice a box of wet sand next to the teeing grounds. The players would take a scoop of the stuff and mold a little tee-pee on the ground from which to launch their gutta percha. The consistency of this support had to be questionable since most of the guys had trouble bending down in those waistcoats and wool britches.
It is not like there were not great minds working on this dilemma. As you can see in this image a number of guys came up with some innovative man-made teeing platforms to consider. In fact at least two of these have a current iteration that you can buy from an infomercial for three easy payments, and, if you act now, double your order for free if you just pay the additional shipping. The problem was these guys lacked enterprising minds and they could not figure out how to widely market their product to generate any income.
Around 1920 a dentist and frustrated hacker from New Jersey named Dr. William Lowell, who clearly was not making enough from producing wood bridges for his patients, decided to go after this fledgling market big time. He introduced his wooden peg version, The Reddy Tee, which he patented in 1925 and struck a deal with Spalding Company to produce. The concave platform cradled the ball to hold it in place without wobbling and the red paint gave it a recognizable look.
The real challenge was how to market this to the growing populace in America who became infatuated with golf in the Francis Ouimet-Bobby Jones golden era. Other than major amateur events most people saw their golf through exhibition matches that were put on by the professionals of the day. There was no one more visible or popular in this platform than the ultimate showman himself Walter Hagen.
Lowell’s marketing genius was to sign Hagen for the outrageous sum of $1,500 to use his tees on exhibition tours in the United States and England. Hagen handed out hundreds of bags of them at his exhibitions and before long spectators were scrambling to collect them as souvenirs, It worked like a charm because the Reddy Tee started showing up in pro shops all over the country. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and knock offs of these tees started coming out of the woodwork, literally.
You might wonder why the tees are not still red today since that was one of Lowell’s basic marketing features. It turns out they had a humidity issue. Mark Frost, in his book “The Grand Slam” explains that “The first time Hagen went out with a pocket full in humid conditions he saw a stream of crimson running down his tailored plus fours and thought he had been shot. Not about to turn his back on the endorsement money, Walter took to carrying a spare Reddy behind his ear”.
It is funny that with all the technological changes in balls, clubs, bags, and everything else we use on the golf course, the tee we use today is pretty much the same one Dr. Lowell patented in 1925-just smidge taller to accommodate those 450cc driver heads. Pure genius knows no substitute.