Tahoe City Golf Course, opened in 1918, celebrates its centennial with 50-cent green fees all weekend
By the numbers
TAHOE CITY GOLF COURSE
Stepping onto the first tee box at Tahoe City Golf Course is like traveling back in time to the early days of playing with hickory clubs or even decades later, when members of the Rat Pack, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and other celebrities made the short trip from the Cal Neva Resort & Casino to risk tens of thousands on rounds at the storied nine-hole course.
Originally called Tahoe Tavern Links, Tahoe City Golf course was designed and built in 1917 by female golfing legend Isabella May “Quennie” Dunn-Webb, and first opened for play in 1918.
This weekend the Tahoe City Golf Course will pay homage to the course’s beginnings with rounds of golf for 50 cents. From today through Sunday, green fees will cost 50 cents, roughly the price to play a public course in 1918.
“Throughout the state, in 1918, the courses that were open were mostly private, and so the public ones — pretty rare — were two to four bits,” said Bob Bonino, Tahoe City Golf Course Manager. “It’s just throwback pricing for three days.”
A bit was worth roughly 12 cents, thus the course’s 50-cent weekend.
Dunn-Webb’s course was the first to open in the Lake Tahoe area, and during a time of gender inequality, her contributions to the game standout as one of the more remarkable feats in golf history.
“It was designed and opened by a woman in 1918 and that is unheard of,” said Tahoe City Public Utility District Management Analyst Kurt Althof. “Her history in of itself in the sport of golf dwarfs the history of the Tahoe City Course. Her family goes back to the origins of golf, and one of the most prominent golf ball and golf club makers back in the U.K. in the 1800s.”
Dunn-Webb also designed the Washoe Golf Course in Reno, and her brother John Duncan Dunn designed Old Brockway Golf Course.
A family that shaped a sport
In clubhouses around the world the Dunn family is still talked about in regards to their contributions to the game.
From the mid to-late 19th century, Dunn-Webb’s grandfather, Willie Dunn Sr., played professionally and was keeper of the green at England’s oldest golf course, Royal Blackheath Golf Club.
Her father, Thomas Dunn, was a club maker and designed dozens of courses in his lifetime.
In Tahoe City, the turn of the century brought with it a railroad spur line and guests to the Tahoe Tavern. As the tavern and the sport grew in popularity, a portion of the Tavern’s extensive holdings were set aside for a golf course.
“They used to grow hay out here for horses at the tavern. Then they just said well let’s build a golf course,” said Bonino. “It started out as six holes, and then three or four years later it became nine holes with grass greens, which in that day was pretty phenomenal in itself, and in a short growing season.”
The Tahoe Tavern commissioned the course in 1917. A six-hole course with sand greens was constructed, and then expanded to nine holes and 2,765 yards in 1921.
Decade’s later after going through several sales, the Tahoe Tavern was divvied up among the company’s partners. Through this process the course became the property of Gordon and Pat Hyde in 1946. Two years later, the Hyde’s sold to Carl Bechdolt Jr. and his wife Elsie. The course remained in the Bechdolt family until 2012, when the Tahoe City Public Utility District purchased it.
The course changed throughout the years, moving hole locations and layouts as Tahoe City grew.
The course players see today hasn’t changed since 1968, and is designed to play relatively easy with wide fairways and soft greens. Yet, over the last century the old trees, springs, and other water hazards around the nine holes of play have seemingly developed an uncanny ability to attract balls, making the nine-hole, par-33 course a challenge for most any golfer.
A place for everyone
From having a woman design the course at a time when females couldn’t vote, to allowing minorities to play when the country was in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, the course has a long history of bucking golf and social norms.
“Here it didn’t matter what you were,” said Bonino. “It didn’t matter who, what, how much you had. Everybody was welcome.”
Bonino’s father had a two-decade run during the ‘50s and ‘70s as the course pro, working the grounds during some of Lake Tahoe’s most notorious days.
“My dad was the pro here from ’51 to ’74 and the stories he told me,” said Bonino. “It was when the Cal Neva was in its heyday. Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, his two body guards, Dean Martin, Bing Crosby … they’d have a Calcutta, an invitational, where they’d play here, Old Brockway, and Glenbrook. In the ’50s, $30,000 Calcuttas — and they did it for a number of years, but then people were bringing ringers in.”
Of all the players and celebrities his father saw and played with, Bonino said there was no one he spoke more highly of than Davis Jr.
“My dad said he was the most talented guy he ever met, could do everything — sing, dance, golf, he could do everything,” Bonino said.
Tahoe City Golf Course has long stood apart from other courses. Through the years the small intimate course and its clubhouse has served as a place where rich and famous players could mingle with amateurs and junior golfers.
Countrywide Financial Corp co-founder David Loeb learned to play at Tahoe City Golf Course, according to the clubhouse, and former United Airlines Chief Executive Richard Ferris also frequented the grounds.
Many celebrities have shown up not to play, but to simply spend hangout in the clubhouse, enjoying a place that manages to be both prestigious and blue collar.
Actor Robin Williams used to entertain staff and anyone else around him as he sat the bar waiting for his children to finish playing. Actor Milton French-Stewart would also come in just to eat “all the time,” Bonino said.
“You can walk in and feel comfortable. Your gal can walk in and feel comfortable. It’s really unique,” said Bonino. “I’ve played golf my whole life and I’ve never experienced anything like it. The whole ambiance, the people that would give you the shirt off their back, it’s so unique … it hasn’t changed, it’s a fun, fun place. Tahoe City is just different.”
In celebration of the course’s centennial, Tahoe City Golf Course is putting on events and specials throughout the golf season.
Throughout the year, every Tuesday (excluding July 3) will be May Dunn Day. The course will offer a nine-hole ladies rate of $19.18, in honor of the course’s 1918 opening.
Similarly, every Thursday (excluding July 5) will be Throwback Thursday with nine-hole pricing at $19.18 all day for all golfers.
In addition to specials, the course will be the temporary home to a portion of golf historian Rick Lund’s extensive collection of historical golf equipment and memorabilia. The exhibit’s centerpiece will be a junior golf club made by and carrying the Dunn-Webb name.
On Friday, June 8, the course will host putting and driving contests for all ages using hickory stick putters and throwback equipment.
Following the contests, nationally published author and Tahoe historian, Mark McLaughlin, will deliver a historical presentation on the Tahoe City Golf Course. Admission is free and subject to space available.
The following day the course will host the Two Bills Heritage Golf Tournament with proceeds benefiting the Red Cross and the Tahoe City Recreation Association.
On Saturday, Aug. 19, in a nod to female-influenced beginnings, the greatest female golfer of this generation, Annika Sorenstam, will provide a junior golf clinic and demonstration followed by a question and answer and photo session.
“The world’s most famous woman golfer is going to give a clinic right out there,” said Bonino. “I don’t think I have enough room for the people that are going to show up.”
Following Sorenstam’s clinic, the course will host its inaugural family golf tournament encouraging generations to come together and form teams. The junior clinic with Sorenstam has been funded by the Tahoe City Recreation Association, whose mission is in part to aid and encourage the development of youth in the community.
Tahoe City Golf Course is in tremendous shape coming into the 2018 season, according to Bonino, after work done to improve drainage on the course and a light winter.
“All of the years that I’ve been here this is the best I’ve ever seen it come out of winter, being that it was a light winter it was just enough water,” said Bonino, whose more than 20 years experience as course manager. “PUD did a bunch drainage last summer. The milder winter and the work that was done it’s really good.”
The course had a soft opening last weekend, according to Althof, kicking off a year’s worth of centennial celebrations.
With the course entering its 101st year of play and under the ownership of the town’s utility district, the plan is for another 100 years of golf on Tahoe’s North Shore.
“I think it’s going to be here for a long time,” said Bonino. “The PUD owns it, and it’s the community’s golf course.”
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Truckee Sun. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.