On December 12, 1899, George F. Grant, an African-American dentist, was issued Patent No. 638,920 for a wooden, reusable golf tee. Previously, golfers had used conical mounds of sand that did not allow for even, predictable strokes.
Dr. Grant graduated from Harvard Dental School in 1870. He was one of two African American to first graduate from Harvard Dental School, where he later taught. (Oddly enough, two later patents on golf tees were also issued to dentists. And you thought all they did was clean teeth!)
Dr. Grant’s story is included in the book Uneven Lies: The Heroic Story of African Americans in Golf, which tells the stories of scores of blacks who battled discrimination to participate in the ritual of hitting a little ball around a course.
Written by golf journalist Pete McDaniel, “Uneven Lies” begins with a foreword by Tiger Woods, who describes his arrival at long-segregated Augusta National Golf Club to play in his first Masters in 1995. As a young boy, Woods, too, had been turned away from several courses because of the color of his skin, but still, the time had finally ripened for breaking barriers. Shortly before his first round at Augusta, he found a card on his locker: it was a good luck wish from Lee Elder, the first African-American ever invited to play at Augusta’s Masters’ Tournament. Tiger, aged twenty-one, went on to become the Masters’ first minority champion, breaking a number of previous records for play in the process.
Over the years preceding Tiger’s entry into the sport, many blacks risked life and limb to challenge exclusionary policies at country clubs. Elder, who once had to change his clothes in the parking lot of the club at which he played, often received death threats when he entered tournaments.
“Uneven Lies” will tell you the stories of the countless black golfers who lived before Elder and Woods, and loved the game, but couldn’t play at its best courses or compete for its most coveted prizes. The PGA’s “Caucasian only” clause didn’t come off the books until 1961.
Though those days are over, many clubs manage to retain their segregationist leanings by virtue of their huge admission fees. And racist comments still flare up from time to time. In 2008, when golf analyst Nick Faldo remarked that fellow pros would have to gang up on Tiger Woods to stop his victory march, Golf Channel commentator Kelly Tilghman suggested they “lynch him in a back alley.” Tilghman was suspended for two weeks.