Legend reborn

Legend Reborn
When it comes to genuine golfing history there is no place in Minnesota in a league with Keller Golf Course

by Kevin Turnquist

Anyone wishing to see a child’s eyes glaze over in immediate boredom need only talk of the way things used to be. Nostal-gia is wasted on the young. Something strange happens with the passing of the years, though, that leaves us susceptible to looking backward in time. Perhaps the world has changed so rapidly that we struggle for something to hold onto, to give us some sense that things are more permanent than they seem as time rushes by. Maybe children are too immersed in this moment to consider moments past. Or could it be that other peoples’ pasts always seem monotonous and our own history is constantly regarded as fascinating?

It is not every golf course than can bring such strange thoughts of the past to mind. Many newer courses try to establish a link to the links of yesteryear (sorry) by tacking a set of wooden shafted clubs on the mantle near a couple old photos of courses in the British Isles. Tradition is big among the golfing class.

When it comes to genuine golfing history there is no place in Minnesota in a league with Keller Golf Course. Established in 1929, Keller was the premium public course in the state for many years. Golfers from Generation X may not even realize that Minnesota was a regular stop on the PGA tour for decades unless they’ve actually visited Keller. A quick clubhouse stop for a hot dog and beer between holes 11 and 12 can get dangerously extended if one starts to look at the photos and memorabilia. The St. Paul Open was held here from 1930 to 1968. The PGA Championship came in 1932 and again in ‘54. Names like Snead, Demaret, Sanders, and Floyd are seen on the winners plaques. The ladies came to town for the Patty Berg Classic in the 70’s, too. For several generations many of the east metro’s finest public course players were proud to call Keller their home course.

Minnesota’s sports fans are painfully aware that we have not been particularly rich in athletic traditions. When we do have the real article - like Keller - letting it go to seed is a painful thing to watch. But watch we did as Keller underwent a transformation that could only be viewed as disastrous. Course redesign, the loss of some key trees, and neglectful greenskeeping threatened to reduce this once proud beauty to just another marginal municipal course. Regular players soon fled to newer, better maintained courses in the next ring of suburbs leaving Keller to compete with Goodrich and Como for the dollars of novice golfers and the perpetual high handicappers.

When the SportsPage staff returned to play Keller for the first time in several years we certainly were not expecting much. The younger members of the foursome braced themselves for another round of boring stories about the Keller that the senior member knew in his long distant youth. One mention of caddying experiences from St. Paul Opens past and that familiar glaze began to appear about the eyes of these playing partners, destroying the senior member’s theory that his stories only had that effect on children and non-golfers. Fortunately, that disconcerting realization was soon replaced by a sense of wonder and excitement as it became apparent that this was not the same Keller that we’d seen just a few years ago.

The most striking changes evident in this latest Keller incarnation lie in the conditions. The turf was dramatically better throughout the course. Greens were in excellent shape, especially considering the volume of play the course is subjected to. Fairways were very different than the hard brown ones that existed in our memories. Keller now has some of the prettiest tee boxes in the area, again in marked contrast to the fairly recent past. Even the rough was green and soft. Some of the newer trees are maturing nicely, with a nice mixture of pines and hardwoods. The maintenance staff seems to spray some sort of herbicide around the bases of the trees and the rough is kept relatively short. While there is still plenty of tree trouble on this course, it doesn’t involve losing your ball among them. Or worse, waiting interminably while the group before you searches among the trees for their strays.

Given these considerable changes, it did not take long for an astute group like our own to develop the theory that Keller must have a new greenskeeper. It turns out they lured a guy away from River Falls Country Club almost two years ago. Unfortunately we were unable to find out whether it was Keller’s rich history, a desire to flee Wisconsin, or other factors which resulted in this lucky break for Keller’s patrons.

Even in its worst state of decline Keller had a nice layout. With the significant improvement in course conditions one starts to realize just how nice it really is. At 6041 yards from the whites it has ample length. Two par fours, the 426 yard 10th and the 431 yard 16th are bona fide monsters. To compound matters, they are the only two holes which require blind shots into the green. Undulating fairways which often narrow in the landing areas, some newer water hazards, and those countless trees contribute difficulty. Greens are quite fast for a public course and did not show any winterkill.

To many of us aged enough to recall Keller’s glory days two holes have always stood out as the course’s signature holes. Number 12 ( the old 3rd hole) is a 475 yard par five. The first two thirds of the fairway run uphill. The final 150 yards or so require a steep downhill shot to a green protected on the left by a pond and by a bunker on the right. Sadly, the mammoth cottonwood that used to guard the center of the hilltop is long gone but the new pond makes up for the loss.

Golfers who learned the game at Keller have often found the par three 13th (yes, that would make it the old fourth hole) to be one of the most intimidating holes they’ve faced. While not a long hole at 137 yards, nearly all of that distance involves carry over a steep valley. Tee shots that are topped or left short demand a second shot - or series of shots - up to what has then become a dramatically elevated green. Trees protect the sides of the green and those who opt to play long are left with a difficult downhill chip that can run through the green and back down into the valley again. Double figures are easily achievable. Why back in the early 60’s when we used to be able to play Keller for the junior rate of a buck… Well, there goes the idea that the eye glazing phenomenon cannot be induced in print. Perhaps nostalgia is best held privately.

The surprise that awaits those who rediscover Keller Golf Course is that it now stands on its own as a truly fine golf course again. We liked it so much that we returned to play it again just a few days later. The possibility exists that sometime around the year 2030 a new generation of grizzled golfers will be boring their friends and children with stories about Keller’s glory days at the end of the old millennium.

Keller Golf Course
Hwys 61 and 36
St. Paul, MN, 55109
(612) 484-3011
Green Fees: $23

  Blue White Red

Distance

6566 6041 5373
Rating 71.7 69.6 71.4
Slope 127 123 124