Higher Power

Here’s an excerpt from an ode I wrote about golf tees. It was first published in Golf Illustrated. Hope you enjoy it.

From its earliest beginnings, the humble golf tee has been often overlooked and taken for granted. Well, no more.

Golf is a game built on confidence. With it, your swing becomes effortless, your thoughts pure and the outcome of each shot preordained. Nirvana found. Without it, golf becomes a tortuous test of self-resilience that can be as much fun as a poke in the eye.

Confidence is key. It can mean the difference between a golfing high and calamitous low. It drives golf club and ball sales around the world and, wonderfully, at the start of every hole, the gods of golf offer us a precious taste of it in the form of the humble tee peg.

It may seem like a small thing, but a ball perched on top of a tee is both iconic and reassuring. Discussing the value of the common tee in a 1965 issue of Sports Illustrated, Jack Nicklaus asked: “When you can have a perfect lie, why give yourself a mediocre one? This is a question I ask… when I see golfers, both good ones and bad, hitting a tee shot on a par-3 hole without teeing up the ball.”

Although clearly not favoured by the world’s greatest player, failing to use a tee is certainly within the confines of the game. In fact according to the R&A’s eleventh Rule of Golf, a player is permitted to hit a tee shot from the ground (which includes irregularities in the surface), from sand or another natural substance. This ruling harks back to the days when golfers teed up the ball using a pile of sand or fashioned mounds of earth as impromptu perches. Indeed, some players still follow this approach; Laura Davies being one.

If you choose to follow the Golden Bear’s advice and tee it up, it would be advisable to choose a conforming tee that is no more than four inches in height, doesn’t indicate the line of play and doesn’t influence the movement of the ball or generally assist you in any way. These stipulations are important because if a player were to use such a tee he could find himself being unceremoniously disqualified and duly marched from the course. A conforming tee may be a godsend, but using one that is not could have severe consequences. You have been warned.

Teaching pros will tell you that using a tee properly will raise the ball above the top of the grass thereby cutting down your chances of hitting a fat shot. More crucially it can prevent blades of grass being trapped between the ball and the clubface enabling the club to attack the ball cleanly producing maximum backspin on the greens. All this results in more accuracy, greater consistency and, ultimately, lower scores. Who would have thought a couple of inches of plastic or wood could do so much?

With so much going for them, you might imagine the first tees were snapped up by golf fans eager to get their hands on the latest game-improvement technology. Apparently not. When the American dentist William Lowell patented the Reddy Tee in 1921 (so named because the tee was painted red), it had been 22 years since the first tee patent application had been lodged; coincidentally also by an American dentist called George F Grant. Unfortunately the intervening years had not enamoured golfers to the idea who refused to play with the pegs despite them being handed out for free. It was only when Walter Hagen received $1,500 from Lowellfor endorsing his Reddy Tee that the idea sparked the public’s imagination and the idea caught on.