Keller Golf Course has undergone a $12.2 million renovation and you are greeted immediately by the most dramatic changes. There is a new clubhouse, pro shop, putting green and first tee, all within chip shots of the main parking lot.
There never has been a golf hole more in need of a complete redoing than Keller’s No. 1, and architect Richard Mandell’s design has turned a preposterous, dogleg-right into an impressive start to a round … still a short par-4 but straightforward.
Lamentably, this change came five decades too late to prevent Mark Kinderwater’s embarrassment early in his first meeting with Jack Nicklaus, who was making his only appearance in the St. Paul Open in 1965.
Kinderwater was a 16-year-old who had done a limited amount of caddying at Midland Hills, the course where his father, Jack, was a member.
Young Mark never had been on Keller until he arrived Wednesday for the practice rounds and was pointed in the direction of the putting green to find Nicklaus.
“We signed up to be caddies and then there was a draft of players — in order of the number of full-tournament tickets that you sold through the St. Paul Jaycees,” Kinderwater said. “My dad was the chairman of the board for Webb Publishing. He sold all the tickets to his buddies, not me, and I wound up third in the draft.
“Arnie Palmer went first, Tony Lema went second, and that left Jack for me. He already had four majors by then, so it was a thrill to get him with the third pick.”
The thrill soon turned to angst, and then panic.
“When he finished putting, I picked up Mr. Nicklaus’ bag and it weighed a ton,” Kinderwater said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to carry it for 18 holes. And when we got to the first tee, he asked, ‘Where’s the green?’
“I was speechless and then finally said, ‘I don’t know.’ I asked people in the gallery and they said, ‘It’s over the trees, Jack.’ He didn’t bother with the dogleg. He just lined up toward where the gallery had pointed, hit a driver over the trees and everyone oohed and aahed.”
There wasn’t much conversation between Nicklaus and his novice caddie until midway on the back nine, when Jack was playing No. 14, another somewhat cockeyed par-4.
“Jack said to me, ‘What do you think this is?’ ” Kinderwater said. “I had no idea, so I guessed 8-iron. I should’ve said, ‘Wedge.’ He hit 8-iron, blew the ball 30 yards over the green and almost over the back fence, and never asked me another question.”
Keller opened in 1929 and hosted the first St. Paul Open in 1930. It was held 30 times through 1965, with gaps due to Keller hosting a pair of PGA Championships (1932, 1954) and a Western Open (1949), to World War II (1943-44) and a lack of financing (1959).
The 1965 tournament with the immensely popular Palmer and his 25-year-old challenger, Nicklaus, drew a record crowd of more than 18,000 for Sunday’s final round.
Raymond Floyd was the winner that day, Palmer and Nicklaus were near the lead, and Kinderwater received a check for $250 from Jack.
“I think I earned it hauling that bag,” Kinderwater said. “I unpacked it after the round and there were 75 or 100 balls in a shag bag, and a half-dozen pairs of golf shoes in there.”
It was getting more expensive to host tournaments, and the St. Paul Jaycees did not have the wherewithal to continue. The event was renamed the Minnesota Golf Classic in 1966, in attempt to get wider financial support.
The tournament was held four more times: in 1966 and 1968 at Keller, in 1967 at Hazeltine National, the new course in the Chaska countryside, and in 1969 at Braemar in Edina.
That was it. We would only see Nicklaus back here for a pair of U.S. Opens at Hazeltine (1970, 1991) and for Tom Lehman’s Dayton’s Challenge in 1998 at Minneapolis Golf Club. He was in a threesome with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player that day, and will be again with Saturday’s reunion of the “Big Three” at the 3M Championship.
“I was able to walk for a few holes with his wife, Barbara, in the first round of the 1970 Open at Hazeltine,” Kinderwater said. “He shot an 81 in a 40-mile-per-hour wind. I didn’t think it was a good time to reminisce. I hope to say hello Saturday at the 3M.”