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Booker T. Washington asks, ‘What drives tee design?’
Early golf courses didn't have tees. Golfers simply teed up near the previous hole. Golfers soon realized that a separate tee, distant from the previous green, improved safety and speed of play. Early tee boxes were simply functional.
Tees evolved slowly to meet maintenance and play needs. They became larger to reduce wear, elongated to provide shorter playing options for differently skilled players, and eventually, multiple tee complexes as architects found that separate tees made golfers feel it was "the" tee. Lately, architects have staggered and separated tees with earth forms and landscaping to truly make each tee a separate entity.
Tees also gradually became greater artistic forms, and they are now considered an equal artistic design element to greens or bunkers. Architects have experimented with many extravagant free-form shapes and with surrounding mounds and landscaping to accent natural free-form shapes. In Southern climates, shapes were highlighted by winter over-seeding, and resilient Bermudagrass stood up to tight radius mowing. In Northern climates, where bentgrass tees are the grass of choice, softer free-form tees are more practical.
When thinking of the theme or style of a course, we still have two basic tee-design choices – rectangular and square.
Recently, many architects have re-introduced "retro" rectangular tees, which connote classic design. Other architects expand tee designs, combining earth forms, stonewalls, island tees and grassing highlights to make each tee an artistic element. Tees are no longer simply functional elements, but style elements that establish course theme and character.
Rectangular tees are nearly 100-percent usable, and can be built where tees must be absolute minimum size to meet budget. Rectangular tees help golfers' alignment, if aimed directly down the fairway. Rectangular tees can have variety within a theme, with notches and angles for different looks. The rough grass might come right to the "break line" between flat tee and bank, or it can be brought inside or below the line allowing the tee surface to gently roll over the tee.
Rectangular tees are often good in tight areas with little topography, or when located near a road or property line, where the straight edge mimics the available area. Rectangular tees are also beneficial at holes No. 1 and 10 to create more usable space without increasing tee size as much.
Curvilinear tees are used most frequently now. They fit nicely in gently rolling natural terrain and are more easily built and mowed by modern equipment. Free-form tees should conform to natural contours or fit around existing trees (taking care that the tree doesn't block traffic, line of play or sunlight). A gentle free-form tee will better fit in areas where features are not available to dictate a "need" for severe shapes. Letting the contours suggest the shape means almost infinite variety is possible. With careful design, curvilinear tees can also assist in alignment.
Sometimes, one tee can have both free-form and rectangular characteristics. On high-play courses, tees and their cart paths should be parallel. Since golfers walk the shortest route, equalizing the walking distance spreads out traffic and eases maintenance.
It's possible to mix many styles of tees, of course. When combining styles of tees, one should predominate, using the other as a design counterpoint in select locations to create interesting variety. In the next installment, I'll detail some of those.