MAPLEWOOD, Minn. – When visitors to the newly renovated Keller Golf Course walk into the handsome clubhouse, they’ll find memorabilia that attests to the unusually rich history of this suburban municipal course.
There are photos of many of the greats who played at Keller – Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Hogan, Nelson, Trevino. The list goes on.
Keller opened in 1929 and hosted the St. Paul Open from 1930 through 1968. It also was the site of two PGA Championships, in 1932 and 1954. The Patty Berg Classic was played there for eight years, from 1973 to 1980.
So Keller regulars have an understandable pride in their golf course. That was evident to Richard Mandell, the architect who was hired in 2012 to renovate Keller. Mandell said players frequently cornered him and gave him a stern message: “Don’t ruin the character of Keller.”
As it turned out, Mandell didn’t see a pressing need to do that. He loved the rolling topography of the parkland layout, even if it had become overgrown with trees, and he didn’t see a need to reroute the course, which reopened for play in July.
The total course renovation cost $4.1 million, with $1.3 million spent on a new irrigation system. For historical guidance, Mandell relied on a 1940 aerial photo of the course.
One thing he noticed immediately was that there were at least five different bunker styles on the course. That, he said, was evident even in the 1940 photo – taken just 11 years after the course opened.
“I thought we had to fix that,” he said.
Greens typically were restored to the shapes and sizes he saw in that 1940 photo, though Mandell reduced the slope on some greens to accommodate the faster, modern-day green speeds.
Among the biggest changes:
Mandell shifted the tee box on No. 1 to the left, opening up the view of the fairway.
Mandell doubled the width of the second fairway, previously the narrowest on the course, to 50 yards and added a center-line bunker.
He cleaned up the intersection of the ninth and 18th greens and 10th tee, which were too congested. No. 9 was converted from a par 5 to a par 4, and the fairway was scooped out so that the tee shot is only semi-blind, as opposed to totally blind. No. 10 was converted from a long par 4 to a short 5, and the 18th green was pushed back to create a more stout, uphill par-4 finishing hole.
On No. 12, trees were removed on the right side of the hole and the tees were oriented slightly to the right to take advantage of a natural fairway saddle. The 12th green was pushed back and to the right, a center-line bunker inserted to add strategy on layups, and the irrigation pond now sits where the green used to be.
No. 16 involved the biggest change from tee to landing area. A ridge was lowered so the tee shot no longer is blind, and the fairway is less prone to kicking balls into the junk to the left and right.
During the renovation, Mandell sought out players’ input. He said he did four walk-throughs with about 100 people who play regularly at Keller, throwing ideas at them and soliciting opinions.
“So many renovations aren’t successful after the honeymoon phase because the architect didn’t bother listening to the end user,” Mandell said. “You can still have great design and incorporate great things while still listening to the end users.”
One of the thornier issues involved trees – specifically, a white oak directly in front of the fourth green, and another white oak that blocked the right side of the 17th green.
“On each tee, I simply asked, ‘Who wants it? Raise your hand. Who doesn’t want it? Raise your hand,’ ” Mandell said. “The majority won.”
So Mandell begrudging acceded to the customers’ wishes.
“They’re iconic trees …” he acknowledged. “But trees and golf were not the origins of the game, and trees and golf don’t really mix because trees and grass don’t really mix.”
The tree on No. 4 can be cleared with a 7- or 8-iron, but Mandell said some higher-handicap players tried to reach the green by hitting low shots under the branches.
“A lot of the older golfers couldn’t bounce the ball up under the tree because there was a bunker right there,” Mandell said. “It was a classic double hazard.”
So Mandell took out that bunker, restored the green to its original size and shape, and moved it slightly to the right to allow for the cart path on the left. Still, it remains the most confounding 150-yard par 3 anyone is likely to find. But it’s what the players wanted.
“Golfers,” Mandell reasoned, “like to beat their heads against the wall.”
Hole No. 1, Par 4, 446 yards: A relatively gentle opener, this steady dogleg left provides a chance for bold players to cut the corner over trees on the left with a high draw or a shot carrying 280 yards played into the prevailing light breeze. The wind here is not, however, a major factor, averaging 7 mph out of the northwest in mid-August and barely enough to offset even partially the traditionally steamy heat. The approach shot here, ideally played left to right, is characteristic of Valhalla in that you can’t work the ball onto the putting surface from a flight path that is outside of the fill pad. In other words, you can’t use the side slopes to get enough bounce to hold the surface. The approach has to be played on a tight line from within the outer edge of the green’s periphery. It’s a course designed strictly for aerial golf.
Hole No. 2, Par 4, 500 yards: For championship play, this members’ par 5 is set up as a gut-wrenching par 4. The drive plays to a Barbie-doll waist of a fairway pinched to 22 yards across, with sand right and a steep falloff to the creek on the left. It’s 280 yards to the bunker, 305 yards to clear, and with the watery slope looming left it won’t be unusual to see players lay up short off the tee here and leave themselves a second shot from 230 yards out. The green, well defended up front and canted diagonally, offers less depth in the target zone than most par 4s at Valhalla. It’s a hole that players, even of this caliber, will approach very defensively.
Hole No. 3, Par 3, 205 yards: It’s impressive how basic and solid Nicklaus can design holes when he’s not trying to trick folks up with gimmicky green “quadrants.” There’s an elegant flow to this hole, especially as viewed from the slightly elevated platform tee across the creek at the base of the wooded hill. A very deep bunker flanks the entire right side and tends to draw golfers away to the left – where the green tilts ever so slightly away from the line of play. The point here is that players have to commit to a middle iron that starts off closer to the right edge than their instincts would prefer.
Hole No. 4, 372 yards: Now we’re out on the vastly open, naturally level flood plain, where Nicklaus and Co. had to work really hard to create all of the contour. The fourth hole is strictly lay-up off the tee, as there’s no incentive or potential reward for a bold drive. The fairway is interrupted 310 yards out, where it spills out into rough, heavily broken ground. Even the far corner of the fairway landing area is heavily protected by bunkers. So it’s a long iron off the tee or some sort of fairway metal/rescue for the guys. The play is to a distinctly contoured green with a plateau right and quick punchbowl fall-off to the left. This is a definite birdie opportunity.
Hole No. 5, Par 4, 463 yards: Now it’s hold-on-for-dear-life-time again, thanks to a relentless dogleg right with very steep bunkers flanking both sides of a tight driving lane. From there, It’s a short- or middle-iron to a putting surface that slides right but kicks the ball back out left if it comes in just a little too far on that high side. If there’s any wind, it works against cutting the hole short off the tee. The one obvious no-no here is coming up short and right on the drive.
Hole No. 6: Par 4, 495 yards: This is the most awkward hole on the course – virtually a compendium of how not to design a par 4. Let’s see: reverse-camber dogleg right to a fairway tilting to the left; a forced layup off the tee since the fairway ends at 300 yards and tumbles off into a steep, watery ravine; trees on the right side that block out a view of the second fairway on the far side. The hole is a nightmare for average golfers – for whom the angle of the tee shot gets progressively worse as the hole gets shorter. Even for these guys in the PGA Championship it’s a knee-knocker of a hole because they’re all facing an approach in of 210-240 yards. Players who miss the fairway on the right off the tee will have no option but to pitch out short of the ravine, leaving themselves two bills in. There’s some relief and bailout short and right of the green, but hit it left and the ball will disappear down a steep embankment.
Hole No. 7: Par 5, 597 yards: The hardest thing in modern course design is to build a par 5 with a viable second fairway option. Here’s an example: a massive par 5, played from a deep launch pad, with two options staring you in the face. There’s a long emerald road down the right side – a seemingly rational path studded with sand on the left side of the tee-shot landing area and on the right side protecting the second-shot zone. And then there’s this little island of repose, virtually dead flat, rimmed only by rough, 1 acre in size and offering a considerably shorter helicopter pad of a fairway for someone who drives the ball 300 yards and straight. To say this island of a second fairway leaves you somewhat isolated is no exaggeration, especially if you miss it. But it is tempting, especially for a player who can then fly his second shot 250 yards over the odd combination of marsh and exposed rock that protects the flyway into this putting surface. The right side is certainly more mundane, but it does pinch down options such that a third shot in following a layup is very awkward because it poses threats both short (sand) and the length of the left side (water). Let’s just say this will be an exciting hole to watch, given the rather startling range of options and the likely gamut of scores, from 3 through 8.
Hole No. 8, 174 yards: Thank goodness for this prosaic interlude, a straightforward little hole played from platform to platform, with lots of shape and contour to the putting surface. The well-sectioned green demands precision on a hole where the trajectory of the short iron will be influenced (somewhat) by the prevailing downbreeze from the left.
Hole No. 10, Par 5, 590 yards: If you ever want to find out how good these guys are, just set up shop to the left of the 10th green and watch them stop shots on a fall-away putting surface. The hole plays shorter than its scorecard yardage, thanks to firm ground and a light breeze helping over the left shoulder. Players who avoid a huge bunker on the right side off the tee (307 yards to reach, 337 yards to pass) can challenge the twisting, double-dogleg ground (right to-left; then left to right) of this second shot. The trick is a green set down below, protected up front by a very steep bunker, shallow in the approach line and tilting back and to the right. There’s a small lane left for a run-up shot. The odds are tougher for a bold second shot flying to the green and holding it. Somehow, a few will manage.
Hole No. 11, Par 3, 210 yards: This hole looks like it was scooped out and settled here – not entirely naturally, so that its modern look feels a bit manufactured. Whatever. These guys won’t care and TV won’t notice. A middle-iron shot heads to a green set diagonally from front right to back left, suspended over a very deep bunker left. The more demanding recovery is actually from behind, where a small bunker leaves a very tough downhill shot from up top.
Hole No. 12, Par 4, 467 yards: I’m all for hole names, but not when they’re lifted from Charlton Heston films. You figure at a club called Valhalla there’d be a hole named “Odin’s Revenge.” Enough said. It’s actually a beautiful par 4, very tough all the way thanks to a narrow driving zone carved left-to-right through a tree-lined chute and leaving a long second shot uphill over a cleaned-out ravine. There’s great spectator viewing from behind this hole. Most players will lay up off the tee rather than risk running through the fairway (310 yards to the edge, downhill) or missing it altogether.
Hole No. 13, Par 4, 350 yards: Here’s more proof, as if it were needed, of my axiom that at any course, the much-vaunted “signature hole” is the least characteristic on the grounds. This memorable short hole is an inventive twist on the now-cliched island green. The bunkerless putting surface here is actually a rock-walled island in a moat, approachable only via an aerial shot after a lay-up tee shot. The hole unfolds from the foot of the clubhouse – dramatic enough – but commits the unpardonable sin of blocking a view of the green from the tee because someone left a dopey stand of trees on the inside left of the dogleg. Why not just clear things out and let golfers gawk – as they do anyway – of the seemingly elusive target? At least one day of the PGA they’ll move the tees up and see if someone is reckless enough to go for it on their drive (attention, John Daly and Bubba Watson). There’s just not enough support in the contour of this 4,000-square foot putting surface to hold a tee shot that’s not perfectly parachuted in – in which case, even from the moved-up tees the smart players will hit middle iron/wedge and play the hole to an average score of about 3.6.
Hole No. 14, Par 3, 217 yards: Good, solid, simple hole to a well-bunkered green canted diagonally. There are three distinct tiers here, each one progressively more difficult to access, with the back one (top right) protected not only by sand but by trees.
Hole No. 15, Par 4, 435 yards: Valhalla has a fine collection of par 4s, and this one starts a great three-hole stretch of them. The drive through a tree-lined chute is one of the tightest at the club and requires a careful right-to-left swing to avoid sand right (294 yards to reach, 313 to carry) and dense woods the entire left side. From there, the short-iron approach is to a green that’s been nudged down towards a rocky creek bed, with the right side of the putting surface hanging over the water. The tendency is to tug the approach shot left, but that brings into a play a bunker pitched back toward the green and a slope that carries the ball toward the water.
Hole No. 16, Par 4, 508 yards: This starts the run of playoff holes from the 2000 PGA when Tiger Woods and Bob May staged their epic showdown. It was here at the 16th green that Tiger did his finger-pointing moon walk of a 20-foot birdie putt – an image that will be oft-repeated this week, and rightly so. This shapely dogleg right plays very narrow thanks to trees looming right and a left-to-right sloping fairway. The green, rebuilt since Woods’ famous birdie putt, is perched and runs off in all directions a la Pinehurst.
Hole No. 17, Par 4, 472 yards: Few holes at Valhalla offer a starker example of the advantages enjoyed by sheer power off the tee. The hole runs steadily uphill and calls for a clear option off the tee: a modest drive to the right, leaving a semi-blind approach of 185 yards, or a dramatic carry of the upswept bunker on the left, 320 yards away, leaving a straightforward, readily visible short-iron shot.
Hole No. 18, Par 5, 542 yards: A great closing hole for a championship (and for member play, for that matter). The green here forms center stage on a vast amphitheater that’s ideal for spectators and players because they can see every inch of the way from tee to green, including the split fairway options on the second shot. A horseshoe green wraps around a deep central bunker and creates two distinct putting areas bridged at the top. The drive is relatively generous yet the fairway is heavily defended wide left (grass, sand and gnarly trouble) and wide right (rocky lagoons the length of the hole). This is one of those ingenious, multi-option holes that makes lots of sense in the field and provides the drama and emotional rush that majors are all about.