Tony Antonious, 85, doesn't have senior moments, he has eureka moments—magical visions that this self-proclaimed oldest living inventor of golf products says are so powerful that they must be the stuff of divine provenance. "An idea can simmer in your mind," says Antonious. "You know it's there, but you haven't quite put it all together. Then one day everything falls into line and—boom!—it hits you, because God sees you're ready for it."
As Antonious speaks, he gazes across the practice tee at the TPC at Prestancia, in Sarasota, Fla. A few feet away George Slupski, a thick-necked 37-year-old and a 12-time national long-drive finalist, is whacking golf balls with one of Antonious's recent creations, the Awesome Steel Giant. The Steel Giant looks nothing like other drivers. The clubhead is wider and longer. A ring of steel circles the back of the head from toe to heel. The grooves on the face are vertical, not horizontal. The sole is U-shaped and concave. "It works like the Concorde," says Antonious, rubbing the sole of the club. "Everything on the market looks alike—they're all big and bulky. It's better to be trim and swift."
Antonious's name does not appear on the club, but something far more important does: a host of numbers, as well as PATS. PEND. (for patents pending). Antonious is believed to have accrued more golf-related patents—more than 250 and counting—than anyone in U.S. history. And if anyone, anywhere, ever builds a driver with vertical grooves, a ring of steel around the back or a concave U-shaped sole, without a licensing agreement with Antonious, they will find themselves in court faster than they can say Eureka!
Antonious has made a fortune—he will not say how many millions he is worth—by issuing licenses on his patents and trademarks and pursuing the companies that he believes have infringed on them. "I'll go against a thousand attorneys," he says. "Nobody frightens me, because I know more about my products than anybody else on earth." Says Dennis Antonious, 64, Tony's son (he also has two daughters), "He's like a pit bull. If he gets his teeth into your neck, you won't get him off."
Antonious currently holds more than 220 golf-related patents (a patent, depending on its classification, must be renewed periodically), and says he has applied for two dozen more. "All kinds of ideas pop through my mind lickety-split," he says. "I can't write them down fast enough." Antonious's prolificacy might give the impression that acquiring patents is simple, but each application must prove in specific detail that it offers a unique innovation, and one patent can cost up to $15,000 in processing and legal fees.
The son of Greek immigrants, Antonious and his three brothers and sisters grew up on a farm in Williamsburg, Va. After completing a two-year accounting and auditing course at the University of Maryland, he took a job with Davison Chemicals, which became part of W.R. Grace. During his more than two decades there, he was constantly tinkering with inventions and peddling them to area businesses. Most of his gizmos and gewgaws had a smack-on-the-forehead logic to them: a tongue-and-groove closure for plastic bags, a jar lid that doubled as a coaster and a contraption made of canvas, steel rods and suction cups that prevents snow from piling up on a windshield.
Antonious is strictly an idea man. His first wife, Sarah, who died of cancer in 1971, was an artist who used to limn his visions on paper. Today he hires designers.
In his heyday Antonious was a hearty athlete who ran three miles each way to high school, and as an adult he became an accomplished duckpin bowler. He began playing golf in his late 40s and was a five handicapper in a couple of years. One day, after injuring his hand swinging a club through some rough, he started experimenting with golf gloves. In those days most gloves were closed with a snap, but Antonious came up with the idea to use Velcro instead. He patented the concept and produced several batches of gloves to take to a golf merchandising show in Miami in 1970. "I brought a hundred dozen gloves, and they vanished in two days," Antonious says.
That success helped convince Antonious to leave his job at W.R. Grace at age 54 to go into inventing full time. He struck licensing deals on his gloves with several companies, most notably FootJoy, which incorporated Antonious's design as an entry point into the glove business and is now the world's leading manufacturer in that category. The FootJoy deal was lucrative for Antonious, but not nearly as much as the 14 cases of infringement he he filed against other glove manufacturers. Those lawsuits took almost 10 years to play out, but all were settled in Antonious's favor, and by the time he was 65, he was independently wealthy.
While most people his age were taking long naps and watching sunsets, Antonious amassed a small fortune by churning out scores of inventions. In the early '80s he reaped another windfall when Titleist licensed his Dead Center putter. In a particularly feverish spurt in 1994 and '95, he applied for 72 patents in six months.