Like most professional golfers in their rookie year, Arnold Palmer found 1955 to be a rocky one, pulling a travel trailer to each stop on the PGA tour with his new wife, Winnie, to save money.
Palmer, then 25, had finished 10th at the Masters (earning a princely sum of $696) but had also twice missed the cut or finished anywhere from sixth to 43rd in 14 tournaments when he arrived at Keller Golf Course in Maplewood that July for the St. Paul Open. He walked away that weekend with third-place money, providing a bit of encouragement at the start of a legendary career that would see him dubbed “the King.” Fond memories of that finish drew him back to Keller the next three years and again in 1965.
“The St. Paul Open was only the fifth tournament in which I won any prize money,” Palmer recalled in a letter now framed at Keller’s new clubhouse. “That third-place finish and $1,300 prize money was the largest paycheck I won to date and second only to the $2,400 I earned for winning the 1955 Canadian Open later that year.”
A witness to so much golf history since opening in 1929, Keller will embark on a new era of golf memories on Saturday with its official reopening. The 18-hole course, owned and operated by Ramsey County, had been closed the past 21 months as part of a $12.2 million renovation and upgrade, which included a completely rebuilt clubhouse that opened in February.
That makeover comes at a time when many cities and counties are looking to get out of the struggling golf business after a boom of building, and overbuilding, in the 1990s. The cachet Keller carries, and the special niche it enjoys, justifies that financial commitment, said Jon Oyanagi, the director of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“The [county] commissioners do see it as an investment in the community. It’s not just about whether profits exceed revenues,” Oyanagi said, adding that the course and new clubhouse are now a valuable, year-round amenity for the community. “It brings economic development — there’s a lot of business transactions that take place here — and people get married here. It’s not just about the golf, they realize that.”
Oyanagi, who grew up in Maplewood and played at Keller as a kid, said he is pleased that the improvement project has not altered the classic character of a championship quality course that also appeals to everyday hackers and Palmer wannabes.
Just as Keller’s new clubhouse, which replaced the one designed by prominent black architect Clarence “Cap” Wigington, is a close replica of the original, the revamped course was not radically changed, said Richard Mandell, the course architect from Pinehurst, N.C.
“The history here at Keller, that will never change,” he said, adding that dozens of Keller patrons had a say in the makeover. “We’ve kept the holes in the same location, for the most part.”
The minimalist approach focused more on opening up the course where it needed to be, he said. For example — the venerable oak tree on the par-3 hole at No. 4, a Keller signature, is unchanged.
One noticeable change, however, is immediate: The first tee was moved to the north and east to accommodate a new pro shop, which replaces a Depression-era shack.
“It makes for a beautiful opening shot,” Mandell said. “It really sets the stage for the whole experience of what makes Keller so special, and that’s the land it lies on.”