Prior to the invention of the wooden tee at the turn of the 19th century, golfers made tees out of sand. Courses would supply each hole with a box of wet sand from which the golfer would fashion a raised mound using either his hands or a cone-shaped mold. In 1899, Boston dentist Dr. George Grant, frustrated with this tedious and messy process, invented a wooden golf tee.
Dr. Grant was born to escaped slaves in 1846, eventually finding work as an assistant at a dentist’s office. This position allowed him to gain the experience necessary to attend and eventually become the second African American to graduate from Harvard Dental School. Later, he served as the first African-American professor at Harvard. Following his professorship, Dr. Grant opened a successful dental practice and became widely respected for his work repairing cleft palates.
But his recreational passion was golf, which he played in a meadow near his home in Arlington Heights, Ill.
Even though the patent for his tee, issued on Dec. 12, 1899, was the first in the country, Dr. Grant never capitalized on his invention. Instead, he had prototypes made for his own personal use and handed them out to family and friends. It wasn’t until William Lowell, another dentist, invented the Reddy Tee in the early 1920s that using a wooden tee became common practice. These other designs from the early 1900s never grew as popular as the Reddy Tee, but each tee displayed in this case is an example of the creative solutions golfers proposed to the everyday problems they faced while teeing off.
To view some of Dr. Grant’s prototypes and early inventions, visit the temporary exhibit at the USGA Golf Museum in Liberty Corner, N.J. Click here for the Museum's hours.
Kylie Garabed is the USGA Golf Museum’s collections assistant. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.