The Golf Tee & Dentistry: Now it can be told
The Aero-Tee: shaped like a giant, inverted, tri-cuspid fang.

The Golf Tee & Dentistry: Now it can be told

Some golfers look at things the way they are and ask “Why?” Dr. Venanzio Cardarelli dreams of things that never were and asks, “Could you open a little wider please?”

Cardarelli, a practicing dentist who holds some 20 different U.S. patents, is the D.M.D. behind the Aero-Tee, a three-pronged, polycarbonate, cuspid-shaped ball platform that he hopes will revolutionize the golf tee genre. It’s a pretty neat little gizmo and a real step forward, if all the independent testing is on the level (see results at www.aero-tee.com). The Aero-Tee’s tri-fluted, helical support structure is designed to reduce resistance by all but eliminating surface-area contact with the golf ball. According to Cardarelli, 55, this scheme also increases the amount of air accelerating all around the ball — including beneath it.

While the new Aero-Tee departs quite radically from traditional golf tee designs, its designer does not. In fact Cardarelli continues a long, distinguished and quite curious tradition of dentist-assisted golf tee innovation. To wit, the wooden golf tee was invented by a Boston dentist, Dr. George Franklin Grant, in 1899, and the golf tee design most commonly utilized today was patented in 1924, by Dr. William Lowell — a New Jersey-based dentist.

Forget for a moment that Cardarelli’s Aero-Tee, if viewed upside down, bears vague resemblance to a mighty fang, roots and all.

What is it about the practice of dental arts that spurs an interest, much less sustained design innovation, in golf tees?

The Aero-Tee: shaped like a giant, inverted, tri-cuspid fang.

“Maybe Grant and Lowell were talking to me from the grave,” laughs Cardarelli, who lives in Plymouth, Mass., and practices four days a week in nearby Braintree. “Honestly, I didn’t even know these guys existed until after I came up with the Aero-Tee. I was just addressing the shortcomings of conventional tees in my basement and came up with this model. Why dentists and golf tees? That’s a tough question. I was just trying to fill a need.”

No pun intended?

“That’s right!”

Cardarelli’s enthusiasm for the Aero-Tee is evident the moment he launches into his rapid-fire, heart-felt spiels on the quest for acceptable tee stability and, of course, polycarbonates strong enough to avoid undue breakage. Yet he appears not to have considered why dentists have historically formed the leading edge of golf tee technology. “It’s a very interesting question,” muses the good doctor, slowing down to ponder the matter. “Maybe we look at things with a finer tooth comb than most people. We do deal with very small increments of measurement all day long, fractions of millimeters. We need to visualize and restore at these levels of fineness and quality — golf tees are created on this sort of scale.”

The morning after we spoke on the phone, Dr. Cardarelli, whose friends call him Vinnie, sent me an email. Evidently our conversation had stuck in his craw. “I am still thinking about your question, about the relationship of dentists and golf tees. Maybe the answer will come from the grave,” he wrote, before adding something he’d neglected to mention the day before: the vice president of Aero-Tee is Dr. Joseph Santelli, a close friend and fellow dentist (D.D.S., actually).

Cardarelli is optimistic about the Aero-Tee’s business prospects, though his product has been on the market a relatively short time [it debuted in early 2004] and there is significant competition. PrideSports of Burnham, Maine (www.ptsgolftees.com) produces some 85 percent of the world’s wooden tees, and golfers aren’t exactly massing in the streets and turning over cars to protest the state of the art. Most golfers believe low-tech wooden tees, despite their “resistance”, do a creditable job — and most golf courses give them away in pro shops.

That said, Pride has ventured into the high-tech, alternative tee market with its PTS Off-Set model whose design recalls a waitress holding a tray over her head. One of its three prongs is shorter than the others. According to the web literature, “for best results, aim short prong at target”.

The Tomahawx model claimed to reduce resistance by…

A product once marketed under the name Tomahawx went the resistance-free route by concentrating on the other end of the tee — the pointed end that goes sub terra. This knife-shaped point allowed the tee to pivot forward, thus reducing resistance upon driver impact.

… tipping over upon impact — without breaking.

Then there’s the Brush-T (www.brusht.com), another alternative tee product whose flat, bristle-brush platform also claims to reduce resistance and accelerate air flow beneath the golf ball. Sort of ironic that after all those years in the basement — after all those years cajoling his patients — Dr. Cardarelli never saw the golf application of brushes. “I’ve told my wife: I’m shocked that I didn’t come up with that as an alternate design,” he says somewhat ruefully. “I guess what’s really amazing is the person who invented it wasn’t a dentist.”

Indeed, the Brush-T was conceived by Jason Crouse, a South African industrial product engineer. In other words, not a dentist. However, the president of Brush-T North America, Paul Krok, while not a dentist, just happens to be president of another company, Oralgiene USA, Inc., which distributes electric toothbrushes for children. Perhaps for this reason, Cardarelli is gracious in discussing his competitor.

Or perhaps he’s just wary of being pegged as the only dentist on earth against brushing.

 

Three-wheeling the Vietnamese Highlands

Three-wheeling the Vietnamese Highlands

We had only been a day in Phan Thiet and, frankly, I’d have rather stayed another two. The links at Ocean Dunes Golf Club, part of the seaside Novotel Phan Thiet Resort, were superb (good enough to warrant another go-round, or two) and only a fool would have begged off one fully flaked-out day on the hotel’s long, quiet stretch of beach.

But the itinerary can be a stern taskmaster, so I kept my peace and prepared for our scheduled departure. Then, on the way to breakfast, I saw them — those motorcycles and their attendant sidecars, all neatly lined up in front of the hotel — and my ambivalence melted away. No one in his or her right mind could resist the sheer romance of 200 kilometers, by sidecar, from this tropical perch on the South China Sea to the mountain retreat of Dalat. I was glad to see that my driver, Gilles Poggi, sported a kroma, that distinctive, all-purpose Cambodian scarf. I wanted one, too. I was also hoping we could line up behind our respective machines and, at the sound of a gun, begin the journey rally style.

The reality proves more staid. The sun now peeking over the hotel façade, we slather on the sunscreen, affix our sunglasses, helmets and hats, and wait for the last of our group to return from the bathroom. Hardly the stuff of Paris to Dakar, though our three-wheelers do turn over, en masse, with a very satisfying rumble, and we pull out in precise formation, one after another, like starlettes from a 1930s-era musical follies into the pool.

Poggi, a Corsican who wears his kroma with all the Gallic élan one might expect, is a hotelier whose next project is poised to open just south of here in Ho Tram. These sidecars and their motorized escorts are his personal obsession, and he leads these trips — along with his friends in Team Camel, their touring club — as a one-of-a-kind amenity for guests and acquaintances seeking 360-degree tours of the south Vietnamese countryside.

“We started adventuring with sidecars more than 10 years ago, in Hanoi,” Poggi shouts as we travel up the coast, his voice perfectly audible above the 4-stroke din. “I had two friends who had hooked up with these sidecars. One of them invited me to go to Sapa, and I’ve been riding ever since.”

Poggi slows down and stops his narrative for the moment, to avoid a cavernous pothole. We’ve turned away from the water now, the roads becoming more narrow and dodgy with every passing kilometer. My sidecar, of course, is suspended between three points of a triangle: the two wheels of the motorcycle, to my left, and a third wheel to my right. When Poggi dodges a pothole, my carriage often passes directly over the blemish. The passenger sees it coming and instinctively braces for a jolt that never comes. This is a fine metaphor for sidecar travel: All in all, the experience is far more comfortable than one might expect.

“Later, when we moved to Phan Thiet, I decide to get one for myself,” Poggi continues. “I met a policeman who was selling one, and when I asked him how much, he quoted me a price — by kilo! So I bought one, for maybe $200 US. Later, I realized we should have another one, so we could go out as a group. I bought a second, and the policeman told me, ‘I’ll do you a favor. You buy the second and I’ll give you a third for free.’ Today, we have 11.”

The ride of choice for Team Camel is the 650cc Ural M-72, a Russian replica of the vaunted BMW R71, a German-army staple during World War II and the very bike Steve McQueen made famous jumping barbed-wire fencing in “The Great Escape”. Urals became ubiquitous in Vietnam only after 1975, and they remain practical, Poggi says, because the Russians did a good job simplifying the design, parts are readily available, and Vietnamese mechanics know their way around them. They’ve been fixing them for 30 years after all.

In our party there are two quite spiffy, official-lookijng sidecars while the others are decorated more flamboyantly, according to the whims of individual club members. Remi Faubel, Poggi’s friend and a quite celebrated chef here in VN, drives a Ural of canary yellow featuring the snarling countenance of a large cat-like creature. Poggi and I ride a black model named for “The Ramones”. It’s an odd-but-pleasing juxtaposition, wending my way through a Vietnamese tableau with a Corsican guide, seated in a Russian-made BMW knock-off named for the proto-grungers who gave us “Sheena is a Punk Rocker”.

Having passed through a narrow shelf of level ground set aside for rice paddies, we soon set off into the highlands. We have taken the back roads where villages are fewer and further between. The Urals are working hard now, taking on steep inclines and those potholes too large to straddle. The higher we go into the mountains, the less tropical the landscape becomes. But never is it anything less than lush: 10 shades of deep green set against still darker greens.

On a tree-less plateau set high above a reservoir of sparkling blue-green, we stop for lunch which, thanks to Faubel, qualifies as perhaps the most elegant picnic ever devised by man. Holding a glass of sauvignon blanc, Poggi defends his precious Urals from the half-serious charge that they are, well, rather ungainly in appearance. “The sidecar is not a very noble piece of transportation, it’s true. No matter how we package it. But there is nobility in riding a sidecar, there is nobility in experiencing the highlands in this way, there is nobility in enjoying a lunch of foie gras and perhaps a glass of white wine.”

There’s no arguing this.

After lunch we climb ever higher into the highlands on narrow roads of the switchback variety, each one flanked by precipitous drop-offs lurking just beyond the guardrails — when there are guardrails. It’s something of a shock to see that Vietnam can be so legitimately mountainous. Two hours from Dalat we zig-zag our way up through a broad mountain pass and Poggi points to a hillside dotted with cultivated vegetation: “Café,” he shouts, lifting an imaginary demitasse to his lips. It was the first of many plantations we would pass in the next half-hour. Vietnam is now the world’s second largest producer of coffee beans, behind Brazil, thanks to elevations and hillsides like these.

As we draw closer to our destination, the roads get better and the population less sparse. For several hours, we had passed only through dusty, remote villages where locals met our odd caravan first with surprise, then with smiles and waves. In these more populous areas, our standing as curiosities is more modest. Dalat is a resort Mecca that attracts all kinds, foreign and domestic. A light rain begins to fall. We draw less and less attention as pedestrians veil themselves and we find our place amid the wider flow of traffic.

Though we’d been climbing steadily since mid-morning, the final stretch of road is the steepest yet. Halfway up this series of switchbacks, the vegetation turns again; there are pine trees at roadside now and the air sports a startling crispness, an absence of moisture I hadn’t experienced since my plane touched down in Ho Chi Minh City the week before.

The French influence in Vietnam is hard to miss, even 50 years and three wars removed, but because the French founded Dalat (as opposed to merely occupying it), this mile-high city has retained more of its Gallic character than just about any place in Vietnam. With its alpine qualities, planned neighborhoods and ubiquitous French architecture, Dalat could be mistaken for Lausanne, or Grenoble. Our ultimate destination, the Sofitel Dalat Palace hotel — surrounded by topiary gardens and verdant lawns sloping down to sparkling Xuan Huong Lake — does nothing to mitigate this sensation. Opened in 1922 and restored to the last period detail, the Palace and its fine-dining venue, Le Rabelais, evoke a level of colonial grandeur and indolence the equal of anything in Southeast Asia.

And yes, that is a golf course I spy on the hillside across the lake. Not just any course, apparently, but the one laid out in 1932 for Bao Dai, the last emperor of Vietnam. I think I’m going to like it here.

Bedecked in shorts and flip-flops, I surely looked a fright as I hoist my dust-covered frame from the Sheena Express. Had I alighted in this state from a mere automobile, I might have felt out of place. As it was, I ascend the Palace’s ornate, white marble steps in the perfect historical idiom, regretting only that I had failed to pack a tuxedo.