May “Queenie” Dunn-Webb was already a rock star in the world of golf when she was hired in 1917 by Charles Bliss, managing owner of the luxurious Tahoe Tavern hotel just south of Tahoe City. Due to the increasing popularity of golf in the United States in the early part of the 20th Century, Bliss wanted to add the sport to his hotel’s standard Tahoe summer guest amenities such as boating, swimming, horseback riding, hiking and fishing.
Isabella May Gourlay Dunn seemed destined to be involved in the game; after all, it was in her DNA. Born in England on May 12, 1880, she was the third generation of two of the world’s most influential families in the early history of golf. The Dunns and Gourlays were leaders in the evolution of the sport, including ball and club improvements, as well as instruction and course design.
Queenie was already the nation’s first woman golf instructor, now she had become the first female architect of links in the world.
Her paternal grandfather, William “Willie” Dunn Sr., was the instructor and Keeper of the Green at London’s prestigious Royal Blackheath links, where he was a top player, as well as a club and ball maker. His two sons, Tom and William Jr., followed in their father’s footsteps as professional golfers, ball and club craftsmen and highly regarded course architects.
May’s maternal ancestor, Douglas Gourlay, had been appointed golf instructor to King James V of Scotland in the 16th Century. Subsequent generations of his descendants became famous for their expertise in making golf balls of the period, which were three pieces of leather stitched into a ball skin and stuffed to capacity with the downy feathers of young birds. It may seem counterintuitive, but historically the development of the golf ball has been more important than advances in club design. The featherie is the most famous of all golf-ball designs and it dominated the sport for more than 200 years.
Featherie balls were often referred to as Gourlays for the family’s mastery of the technique used to handcraft them. Soaking the leather and feathers before drying made for a rock-hard sphere that by 1786 could sail more than 200 yards. The official record for a featherie was set in 1836 at (wind assisted) 361 yards at the St. Andrew’s Links in Scotland.
May’s maternal grandfather, John Gourlay, was an expert in making featheries but by 1860 he had embraced the new gutta percha ball fabricated of dried tree-gum resin. In 1871, the aforementioned Willie Dunn Sr. created a mold for a quicker and more consistent method of production of the gutties. These balls were painted red or white for winter or summer play.
Modern-style golf balls were first invented around 1900 by American Coburn Haskell and were made of a solid core wrapped tightly with rubber threads and covered with a layer of the gutta percha resin. Known as the Haskell ball, the outside surface was later given the dimple patterns we see today. Since the late 1960s, however, there has been an explosion of new designs and composites for golf balls that have increased accuracy for all players.
May Dunn, later nicknamed “Queenie,” would also contribute to her family’s golf legacy. Her father, Thomas Dunn, was considered the greatest instructor of his time, as well as a top professional golfer, club designer and prolific course architect. In 1870, he married Isabella Gourlay. May’s mother, Isabella, was England’s first female golf instructor, who began her career in 1875. Daughter May would follow in her footsteps, becoming England’s second woman instructor. As a child she learned the game at the historic North Berwick Golf Club designed by her father. While visiting New York at the age of 18, she fell in love and married Casper Van De Watering. A daughter Maisie was born the following year, but the marriage didn’t work and May returned to England.
In 1910, May married William “Willie” Webb, a club and ball maker who had worked for her father. Webb was also an author who penned a popular book, “Lessons in Golf.” It was Webb who affectionately called May “Queenie,” a nickname that stayed with her for life. May had grown up watching her parents, uncles, siblings and other professionals play the sport and she learned the game naturally by instinct and repetition rather than thought. It was in this style that she became a successful and popular golf coach beginning in 1904.
War World I broke out in Europe during the summer of 1914 and the conflict took its toll on the business of golf. Queenie’s brother John Duncan was then working in New York as an instructor. Her marriage had deteriorated and in January 1914 Queenie initiated divorce proceedings against Willie. Subsequently, he had relocated to a Boston area course where he was employed as an instructor. She too decided to move to the United States, which she did the following year.
On Queenie’s arrival at Ellis Island on Sept. 1, 1915, she became the country’s first female golf professional. The New York Herald soon commissioned her to write a series of instructional articles for women with the byline Mrs. Gourlay Dunn-Webb. For the next year, May instructed at several courses in New York and New England and briefly taught golf at Wellesley College, an elite school for women in Massachusetts.
For reasons unclear — possibly for the Silver State’s divorce residency requirement of one year — in December 1916 May and her younger sister Norah moved to Reno, Nev. In short order she generated enthusiasm for a golf course there, the state’s first. Queenie then spearheaded a successful movement to secure land and establish a club. Over the winter she designed and supervised the construction of a nine-hole course called the Reno Golf Club. By early spring 1917 it was open for play. Today it’s known as the Washoe Golf Course, although the original entity had closed for years before the Washoe club was built.
May ran the Reno course as manager and head instructor, with sister Norah as her assistant. Queenie was already the nation’s first woman golf instructor, now she had become the first female architect of links in the world. That June she got a call from Charles Bliss at the Tahoe Tavern and promptly Queenie was on her way to make history at Lake Tahoe. Stay tuned for Part II.
Special thanks to golf historian Rick Lund for generously sharing his research.