These are the times that try golfers’ souls, when winter, to use the parlance of their passion, has reached the back nine. The days are inching longer, yet spring, and tantalizing visions of green, are still a long way off.
The wait has been especially long and trying for golfers who love the historic and popular Keller Golf Course in Maplewood, owned by Ramsey County and closed all of last season for a $12.2 million renovation that began in the fall of 2012.
The historic clubhouse dating to 1929 was razed, too far gone for renovation. The new building, with a design paying homage to Keller’s rich past but featuring updates that promise to help it endure for decades, is now finished and open for events. An open house is set for Feb. 23.
Golfers, though, will have to be patient for a few more months. The course, complete with new bunkers, tees, greens, cart paths and an irrigation system, isn’t scheduled to reopen until June 28.
New grass was planted by autumn last year. But even after the snow melts, it will still need several weeks to establish itself to withstand heavy foot and golf cart traffic, said Allison Winters, spokeswoman for the Ramsey County Parks & Recreation Department.
“Actually, this blanket of snow is pretty good for it,” she said Thursday, looking out from the clubhouse banquet room, with its wood-beamed ceilings mindful of those at Scottish links courses.
“The county is very committed to not opening too early. We’ve seen it happen before at other Twin Cities golf courses where they have been opened too early, they’re not ready for the traffic, and then they have to close and dump money back into it to make repairs. When you spend this much money on a project, you don’t want to have to go back and do it again.”
While the course was completely renovated, only six of the 18 holes were actually realigned, partly with the aim of having tee boxes closer to the clubhouse. “[The designers] tried not to do anything too drastic,” Winters said. “We wanted to remain true to Keller.”
The course is one of the state’s most historic sports venues.
Virtually every notable golfer from the 1930s through the 1960s played Keller when it was a regular stop on both the men’s and women’s professional tours, including the annual St. Paul Open that ran from 1930 to 1968.
In the 1940s, it was one of the few PGA events in which blacks were allowed to compete. In 1932, Olin Dutra became the first Hispanic to win the National PGA Championship when the event was held there, earning one of the most dominant victories in the tournament’s history. Dutra played 196 holes over the six days and was 19-under-par.
Boxing great Joe Louis golfed there as an amateur, and notorious gangsters in the 1930s also found Keller a nice place to relax. Legend has it that as John Dillinger was playing the third hole one day, he saw FBI agents approaching his group. He jumped a nearby fence and hopped a train on tracks adjacent to the course, leaving his clubs behind.
‘Let’s do it right’
The course was named for Herbert Keller, a Ramsey County commissioner.
To save on the architect’s fee, the task of designing the original 18-hole track was given to Paul Coates, the county engineer. At his own expense, Winters said, Coates visited prominent golf courses on the East Coast to see how it was done. His work, she said, has stood the test of time.
The decision to raze the clubhouse, designed by noted African-American architect Clarence “Cap” Wigington, who also designed the Highland Park water tower and original Como Zoo building, was difficult, Winters said. But with the windows rotting and the stone foundation failing, it was determined that it could not be saved.
That also offered an opportunity to renovate the course at the same time.
“Let’s do it right and make sure that this gem is around for the next 85 years,” Winters said.
“The county was really focused on preserving the history of Keller because, not only the men’s and women’s golf clubs, but all the people who have loved coming here understand the history of the clubhouse and the course. They were afraid of anything being changed on their precious course, and the county was always respectful of that.”
Dave Carlson, one of the project architects with the Partners & Sirny firm in Minneapolis, agreed. The planning process involved historical groups, the county and the golf clubs to reach a design consensus on a building that will be a county showpiece and can be used all year long. “We tried to replicate a lot of the same design styles and techniques” as the old building, he said.
The clubhouse is slightly larger than it was, but is still on its promontory overlooking Hwy. 61 and Keller Lake. The building still has its distinctive dormers, but its wooden cedar-shakes siding was replaced with a more durable fiber cement material that mimics it. The flagpole is in its same spot, and the massive fireplace with its sculpted Germanic-type “K” initial was carefully removed and reinstalled.
The scads of memorabilia — trophies, autographed pictures of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and other treasured bric-a-brac — were removed, and will be displayed once again throughout the interior, he said.
“It needs to get ‘home-ified’ — if that’s the right word for it,” Carlson said. “We need to get it to its old feel again. It’s ready.”