Historic Keller GC reopens following renovations

The 13th hole at Keller Golf Course in Maplewood, Minn., after 2014 renovations.

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.”

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The fourth hole at Keller Golf Course in Maplewood, Minn., after 2014 renovations.

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.”

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