On Dr. George Grant

George Grant only recently received credit for his simple invention that changed the sport of golf

Dr. George Franklin Grant (1847-1910) was an avid golfer, dentist, the first black faculty member at Harvard University, and the original inventor of the golf tee (U.S. Patent #638,920) in 1899. Although other tees had been developed earlier, none caught on. Grant's invention resembles the modern day tee and was described as having a "tapering portion [usually wood] to be driven in the ground first, and a flexible tabular head [usually rubber], the lower end of which embraces the upper portion of the base."

Despite obtaining an official patent, Dr. Grant did not receive widespread credit for his invention until recently. In fact, GolfDigest published an article in May of 1991 that suggested Dr. William Lowell, a white dentist, invented the modern golf tee 21 years later in 1924.

When he wasn't teaching or innovating in dentistry, Dr. Grant played golf often - both on real courses and in a meadow course he built himself next to home where he spent his summers in Arlington Heights. Grant invented the golf tee in 1899 because he was tired of building a little mound of dirt to prop up his ball before hitting his first shot on every hole. Grant chose to give away golf tees to friends and other players rather than pursue building a business around golf tees. He never marketed the tee, and died suddenly in 1910, 11 years after receiving the patent.

In a 1991 essay published in the Trotter Review, Dr. Wornie Reed investigated GolfDigest's claim that Dr. Lowell invented the golf tee, and discovered that the leading institution in the sport, the United States Golf Association, did not recognize Dr. George Grant for receiving the first patent for the golf tee.

In the essay, Dr. Reed unpacks why Grant hadn't been recognized by the USGA. Dr. Lowell invented a golf tee, much like Grant's, in 1924 and received US Patent #1,497,687. He painted his tees red and named them the Reddy Tee. Reddy Tee struggled to gain traction as a business until Lowell paid $1,500 to have champion golfers Walter Hagen and Joe Kirkwood use Reddy Tees in an exhibition match in 1922. The novelty caught on, and by 1940, there were over 140 US patents for golf tees made of various materials.


Photo by Michael Remy

Reed goes on to explain, "that Dr. Grant was not given his due in golf's top publication, Golf Digest, is illustrative of the many difficulties that persist in maintaining accuracy and visibility in the historical record when it comes to African Americans... [my investigation] reveals how it happened that Dr. Grant's name has been bypassed: quite simply, Dr. Lowell was able to market his tee, whereas Dr. Grant did not wish to do so and would most likely have been blocked from doing so if he had tried. What this history reflects, then, is the problems that blacks have often had in American society stemming from a lack of equal access to mainstream industry and commerce (1)."

1) Reed, Wornie. Sports Notes Who Invented the Golf Tee? Trotter Review. Volume 5. Issue 3, Article 6, 9-23-1991.

We chose to collaborate with Varyer on a George Grant focused capsule to highlight his innovative spirit, love for golf, and the toxic societal climate that led to him not receiving due credit from the leading golf institution for close to 100 years.

Whim Golf

While it's great that the USGA now officially recognizes and celebrates Dr. George Grant's contributions to the game, his story reminds us of how we write history, and must hold ourselves accountable to get it right to the best of our ability.

Reference:

1) Reed, Wornie. Sports Notes Who Invented the Golf Tee? Trotter Review. Volume 5. Issue 3, Article 6, 9-23-1991.