Dr. George F. Grant: From African American Dentist to Golf Tee Inventor

By Bob Denney
PGA of America

The next time you reach into your pocket or the zippered lining of your golf bag for a wooden tee, think of Dr. George F. Grant, an African American dentist from Boston.

Yes, the ancient practice of preparing a pinched mound of damp sand to elevate a golf ball was trampled without fanfare thanks to Dr. Grant.

Born in 1847 in Oswego, New York, Grant worked for his hometown dentist, Dr. Albert Smith first in running errands and later as an assistant. At age 19, Grant left his hometown for Boston, finding work as a dental assistant and at 21 gaining entrance into Harvard Dental School, the first university-based dental program in the nation. In 1870, Grant graduated with honors, the second African American to earn a degree in dentistry.

He was hired by Harvard Dental School in mechanical dentistry. His inventive skills took over and he developed inserts for patients with cleft palates.  His work gained international fame in the dental community and he began his own practice. Grant developed a love for golf, first at Franklin Park just outside Boston, the second public course in the country. His daughter, Frances, also caddied for him on a meadow course that Grant built next to his country home in Arlington Heights.

On Dec. 12, 1899, Dr. Grant received a U.S. patent No. 638,920, the world’s first patent for a golf tee – a wooden spike with a flexible rubber peg for the ball. Because Dr. Grant was an inventor and not a marketer, he never reaped the benefits of his innovation. He gave some of the tees – manufactured in a small shop I Arlington Heights – to friends and playing partners. When Grant died of liver disease in 1910, the invention passed with him.

Well, almost.

In 1920, Dr. William Lowell of Maplewood, New Jersey, also a dentist and someone who didn’t like pinching mound of sand during each hole of a round, went to work. He used gutta-percha for golf tees, the same material used to make false teeth and golf balls in the 19th century. However, those tees were too brittle and Lowell switched to white birch.

In 1922, Dr. Lowell paid PGA legend Walter Hagen and his exhibition partner, Joe Kirkwood, to use his "Reddy Tee," and to leave them behind as they played. The result was $100,000 in sales that year, which was six years before Dr. Lowell received his patent and five years before he filed his patent application. He would spend many years and fortune fighting patent infringement. He died in 1954 at age 91.

In 1991, the United States Golf Association recognized Dr. Grant as the original inventor of the wooden tee.