May “Queenie” Dunn: Tahoe Golf Pioneer: Part II

The Tahoe City Golf Course turns 100 years old this summer. | Courtesy TCPUD.

It’s been 100 years since the opening of the Tahoe City Golf Course, making it one of the oldest, continuously operating public courses in California. The nine-hole, par 33 course has a fascinating and colorful history that starts with Queenie Dunn, America’s first professional woman golfer and designer of the Tahoe Tavern Links, precursor to the current course. In the following decades, legendary entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and other celebrities would spend summer afternoons on the Tahoe City course.

READ Part I

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. Americans were going crazy for golf in the first decades of the 20th Century and Bliss wanted to add the sport to his guest amenities of boating, swimming, horseback riding, hiking and fishing.

After studying the landscape, she began designing a six-hole course that worked in tune with the undulating topography
of the meadows.

English-born, May Isabella Gourlay Dunn came from the Gourlay-Dunn lineage of families from Scotland and England. These two families had dominated the sport of golf for three generations, teaching professionally, designing courses, writing instructional articles and books, and improving club and ball construction. In 1910, 30-year-old May married her second husband, William “Willie” Webb, a club and ball maker. It was Willie Webb who affectionately called May “Queenie,” a nickname that stayed with her for life. Queenie filed for divorce four years later and immigrated to the United States in 1915 where she became this country’s first female golf professional.

In 1916, after a short stint teaching and writing about golf on the East Coast, Queenie Dunn-Webb and her younger sister Norah moved to Nevada where the former helped establish the Reno Golf Club and then designed and supervised the construction of a 9-hole course for it. The course opened for business in the spring of 1917 making Queenie the first female architect of golf links in the world. That June she got a call from Bliss at the Tahoe Tavern with a job proposal. The next day, Queenie boarded a westbound train to Truckee where she switched to the Bliss-owned, narrow-gauge Lake Tahoe Railway that connected the transcontinental line with Tahoe City.

Tahoe Tavern first opened in the spring of 1902 as part of timber baron and railroad operator Duane L. Bliss’ grand scheme to elevate Tahoe Basin tourism through better transportation and upscale accommodations. D.L. Bliss was the patriarch who began a family dynasty that had major impacts on the economic growth of Lake Tahoe. Bliss integrated a sleek, stylish steamship, “S.S. Tahoe,” that plied the waters around Big Blue, with a charming, short-line, passenger-train system that catered to the comforts of well-heeled visitors heading to Lake Tahoe from the United States and Europe.

In 1905, a promotional pamphlet described the Tahoe Tavern as “a long rambling building shingled with pine bark, with 20-foot porches and supports of rough-sawed native wood, all set in a primeval forest.” The top of the three-story building included many gables on a steeply pitched roof to shed winter snow. The interior featured beamed ceilings with elk horn chandeliers and simple rustic furniture. Rooms were furnished with “perfectly appointed baths, large closets, electric lights, steam heat and running water.”

Diners were served the best foods available, including perfectly prepared Tahoe lake trout. For those conducting business or wishing to contact the outside world, long-distance telephone and Western Union Telegraph services were available. During the busy summer season, the Bliss resort could host up to 450 guests with hotel rates starting at $3 per day.

D.L. Bliss died in 1907, but he left his hotel and transportation empire to his family. In 1917, the Tahoe Tavern was being managed by Charles Bliss who determined that golf links would add greatly to the hotel’s summer amenities. After listening to Charles’ proposal to build a course, Queenie set out at once to inspect the hay fields near the outlet of Lake Tahoe where the new Tahoe Tavern Links were to be located. After studying the landscape, she began designing a six-hole course that worked in tune with the undulating topography of the meadows. The half-dozen links ran 1,405 yards, varying from 115 to 330 yards between holes. Tahoe Tavern Links would be expanded to nine holes by 1921, but Bliss wanted the course playable by summer 1918 so an abbreviated version was constructed. On July 6, 1918, the course was officially dedicated and opened with a well-attended tournament with 25 players from all over the West Coast.

Before irrigation was installed at the Tavern Links in 1931, the tees and greens were made from sand while the fairways were natural turf, which was common at the time. Jeffrey and sugar pines towered above the links, giving the course a wilderness vibe. When the course was expanded, one of the new tee shots boasted a breathtaking view of Lake Tahoe. Queenie remained the course pro and manager for Tahoe Tavern Links for several years. During the winter months, she taught golf in Southern California at various Linnard Hotels in the Pasadena area. Linnard Hotels would eventually buy Tahoe Tavern resort in 1925. D.M. Linnard, head of the company, gained approval from the Interstate Commerce Commission, along with an agreement with Southern Pacific Railroad, to upgrade the Lake Tahoe Railway to standard-gauge track, thus opening the line for reliable winter transportation to Tahoe Tavern and Lake Tahoe.

But Queenie’s days as America’s most famous golf professional were numbered. In 1920 she met a wealthy businessman who was in Nevada for a divorce. Adolph G. Hupfel had arrived in Reno in 1919 to initiate divorce proceedings against his wife, who was connected to the St. Louis-based Busch beer brewing dynasty. The divorce was acrimonious and highly publicized, but it eventually ended in 1921. A highly skilled golfer, Hupfel spent his free time playing the Reno and Tahoe courses where he met Queenie. The couple fell in love and married in 1923. They moved to New York City and Queenie gave up her professional status to play for fun and later engaged in the art of landscape painting. Tahoe City’s Bechdolt family would buy the course in 1950 and run it for 62 years, but that’s a story for another day.

Special thanks to golf historian Rick Lund for generously sharing his research.