SI Vault
Amy Nutt
March 11, 1996
Producing the game's most humble tool is a matter of Pride, and great secrecy
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March 11, 1996


Producing the game's most humble tool is a matter of Pride, and great secrecy

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Today tens of thousands of tees are manufactured each day at the 200,000-square-foot Burnham plant (there are also smaller plants in Guilford, Maine; Florence, Wis.; and Brandon, Fla.). Logs are received daily from throughout New England and cut by a sawmill into sticks four feet long,�-inch high by�-inch wide. Placed on pallets and kiln-dried for several weeks, the sticks are then cut by band saws into smaller dowels about six inches long and� inch in diameter. These, in turn, are fed into a turning lathe from which the final product—a golf tee—emerges.

Five days a week the plant thrums with the sounds of band saws, some as long as 34 feet. A dozen or so bins, weighing more than 300 pounds each and overflowing with brightly colored, white and natural wood tees, create a kind of obstacle course on the factory floor. When asked how many tees are actually in each bin, Pride says, almost apologetically, "Well, we really prefer to sidestep that question."

Oddly enough the simple, unglamorous golf tee has proved to be a source of endless entrepreneurial inspiration over the years. After the first patent for a tee, on a model made from paper and shaped like a cone, was filed in 1896, manufacturers began trying new and different materials from which to build a better tee. These have included everything from sterling silver to brass and bronze to rolled-up waxed paper. There have even been edible tees, as well as ones that decompose in a matter of days.

Pride Manufacturing produces neither of these last two variations. Pride makes wooden tees that come in nine different lengths, from 1? inches to 4� inches, with 2? inches being the standard. They also come in some 20 different colors, including pink and orange neon (a hit in the 1980s), with white being the most popular year in and year out. Tilton claims, however, that natural wood may overtake white this year. "People are always sending us drawings of the next great tee," he says, "but in general most people like to stay with the basics."

Tilton is more than just a sales manager; he is a zealot for whom golf tees are clearly an obsession. "I've gone to a golf tournament or two with binoculars," he says, "and watched the Tour players to see if they were using our tees. Most of them were." Last November, Tilton was in Scotland for a trade show and stopped by St. Andrews—not to play, but to walk the Old Course and scour the ancient links for used tees. His collection, which he proudly displays, consists of nearly 100 dirty, chipped, broken tees. Tilton sees only their beauty, announcing proudly: "Seventy-five, maybe 80 percent are ours!"

The Pride Manufacturing execs clearly want you to love golf tees too—though not if you're going to ask too many questions. Just so there are no hard feelings, a gift box of natural wood tees and a three-inch "tee pen" inscribed with the saying WOOD is GOOD are proffered at departure. One last question. Reporter: "Why is there not even a sign out front with the company's name on it?"

Tilton: "Oh, there is. It's just that it's on the ground, buried under all the snow."

Right. Low profile.

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