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Fore! The Golf Clubs of Willie Dunn, Sr.

Updated: Sep 1, 2022

William “Willie” Dunn Sr. was a Scottish professional golf player, born in Musselburgh (outside Edinburgh), Scotland in 1821. Willie often played challenge matches with his twin brother, Jamie, and they frequently challenged the professionals from St. Andrews, including Old Tom Morris and Allan Robertson. One memorable match in 1843 pitted Dunn against Robertson in a grand challenge match consisting of 20 rounds played over 10 days. Robertson won that match, establishing him as Scotland’s premier golfer. Willie’s fellow professional from Musselburug, Willie Park Sr., won the first Open (or British Open) Championship in 1860. The success of the first Open generated significant interest in the second championship held in 1861. The entry was expanded to 18 players, including the Dunn brothers, who traveled from London, where Willie was keeper of the greens at the Blackheath club. Willie finished seventh, the best of his three top-10 Open finishes. Dunn left Blackheath in 1864, returning to the Edinburgh area to take a position at the Thistle Golf Club at Leith Links.

(Image Library of Congress)

At Leith, in addition to his professional and grounds-keeping duties, Willie also made golf clubs and balls, working from his home. These clubs, marked “Wm Dunn”, may have been made by him at that time. Willie was also the patriarch of a successful golfing family. His oldest son, Tom, was married to the “greatest woman golfer of that day”, Isabel Gourlay, of the famous Musselbourgh Gourlay family. His youngest son, William (also known as Willie) Jr., was born near London about 1864. Willie Jr. began his golf career at age 13, making golf clubs as an apprentice to his brother Tom. Willie Sr. died in 1878.

The Dunn family has a Long Island connection. Willie Jr. started out on his own in 1889 when he was hired to design an 18-hole course in Biarritz, France. At Biarritz, he also introduced wealthy American patrons to the game of golf. As Willie recalled: “I had nearly completed the Biarritz links when I met [Willian K.] Vanderbilt, [Edward] Meade and [Duncan] Cryder. They showed real interest in the game from the beginning…Vanderbilt turned to his friends and said, ‘Gentlemen, this beats rifle shooting…’”. The Americans were hooked on the game and invited Willie to come home with them.

Willie Dunn Jr. at the Shinnecock Pro Shop

Sometime in the spring of 1893 Willie Jr. came to Southhampton, where he helped to redesign and expand the Shinnecock Hills course (believed to be the oldest incorporated golf club in the United States) and added a new 9-hole women’s course. In 1894, he helped design the 6-hole Maidstone Club in East Hampton. The younger Dunn was also an excellent golfer, finishing second (two strokes behind Horace Rawlins) at the first U.S. Open, held in 1895 at the Newport Golf Club. Dunn’s prize money was $100. At the second U.S. Open tournament, held at Shinnecock Hills in 1896, Willie was in a 6-way tie for the lead after the first round. But he shot an 87 in the second round to finish the day in 12th place. At the third U.S. Open, held in 1897 at the Chicago Golf Club, Dunn tied for third place. In addition to his course designing and professional play, Willie Jr. also started a club-making business in 1896. Willie returned to England in 1940 where he died in 1952.

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