Admirers of St. Paul's historic Keller Golf Course, which has been played by some of the world's best golfers, have one more season to revel in familiar greens and the old clubhouse before a $12 million overhaul strips away some of the patina.
The Ramsey County Parks Department is preparing for renovations that include installing new irrigation and drainage systems, replacing the Kentucky bluegrass on the fairways and the bentgrass greens. The plan is to close the course after the 2012 season and reopen for the 2014 season.
Opened in 1929, the course got a facelift about 20 years ago, but that isn't holding up and neither is the clubhouse, said Kevin Finley, director of golf operations for the county.
Clarence "Cap" Wigington, one of the few black architects of his day, designed the clubhouse along with many historically significant St. Paul buildings. The little stone pro shop opened in 1940.
Finley says the overhaul is overdue, but golfers are worried about what will be lost. Roughly 30,000 golfers walk the course annually.
"You go there and it just takes you back," said Steve Date, a Minneapolis teacher who grew up playing the course and watching tournaments.
Andy Anderson, vice president of the Keller men's club, said, "There's so much tradition here ... some real history that's wonderful and difficult to duplicate."
Maureen Murphy, president of the Women's Golf Club at Keller, said she wants to make sure "it's a renovation, not a redesign."
The course played host to the St. Paul Open from 1930 through 1968, and the era's most notable golfers played there: Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer. A photo of Byron Nelson on the greens hangs in the pro shop. In another photo, Ben Crenshaw leads a throng up a fairway. The modern-day PGA tour began in 1969. In the 1970s, the LPGA's Patty Berg Classic came to the course. Date remembers attending a tournament and seeing the pros up close, including Chi Chi Rodriguez and Tom Weiskopf.
However historic, the clubhouse, visible from Hwy. 61, is of limited use because it is undersized now, Finley said. The combined square footage of the clubhouse and pro-shop will more than double from 10,000 square feet to 23,000 in the renovation.
"We get lots of demands for meetings and weddings we can't accommodate," Finley said.
Murphy added that the clubhouse's foundation is crumbling, the women's locker rooms are moldy and inaccessible. "As much as we love that old clubhouse and appreciate the history, it has to go," Murphy said.
The renovation includes a new irrigation system to fix a longstanding problem of uneven watering and old equipment. "Right now the pipes break, and you end up spending a lot of time and money on repairs," Finley said.
The "severe" drainage issues also will be addressed and "technologically advanced" grasses will be sown. Over the years, other grasses have crept in and altered the course, Finley said.
He insisted the layout of the course is "not going to change significantly." But some holes will be different.
For example, he noted, the third green initially was circular but was rebuilt in the 1970s and is wider at one end than the other. He said the updated green was "completely out of character" with the initial design.
Anderson and Murphy are among a couple of dozen golfers on a renovation advisory panel working with the architect. "Everybody has a favorite hole they don't want to change," Anderson said with a laugh and acknowledgement of the difficulty of Pinehurst, N.C., architect Richard Mandell's task.
Murphy wants to make sure an old oak remains on the 13th hole because she remembers her mother sitting there.
Date gets nostalgic and rhapsodic about the entire course.
"I'm hoping they change as little as possible of the actual design," he said. "It's the kind of course you could play every day and not get tired of."
Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson