A visitor to the pro shop at Keller Golf Course asked for the whereabouts of Tom Purcell, the pro at Ramsey County's prized track for the past 34 years.

"Tommy's upstairs," was the answer. "Just open the door and give him a holler."

Those directions were followed, and the visitor was invited to take the steps to the attic that serves as Purcell's office.

The golf course and the clubhouse opened in 1929. The pro shop is down the rise a bit from the clubhouse and opened in 1940.

Len Mattson was the pro then, followed by Herb Snow for 27 years, and John Shortridge for 10, and then young Tom Purcell landed the job for the 1979 golf season.

It appeared as if the card table on which Purcell was doing his paperwork came with him. There were old wooden cabinets bulging with folders and stacks of information that could be found easily by one person: Tom Purcell.

"I guess you could call this my man cave," he said.

Keller has a noble place in Minnesota golf history. It was the site of 33 regular PGA events (the St. Paul Open), two PGA Championships (1932 and 1954), a Western Open (1949) and eight Patty Berg classics (1973-80) on the LPGA tour.

Keller had a tradition of providing high-quality playing conditions at public-course prices. That changed in the 1980s, as Ramsey County pumped very little of Keller's profit back into the course.

That lasted for a decade, until Ramsey County popped to hire Paul Digneau, Keller's well-regarded greenskeeper.

There was a crisis in August 1996, when a storm blew through the heart of the course and took down numerous trees -- including several mighty oaks that were Keller landmarks.

Keller will be losing more trees in the near future. This time, it will be by design, as it tries to recapture some of the look of Paul Coates' original layout in 1929.

The Ramsey County board has approved $10 million to $11 million to upgrade Keller. The dollars will be split between a new clubhouse and improvements to the golf course.

There will be a new pro shop -- and maybe even a new card table for Tommy.

Richard Mandell, located in the golf mecca of Pinehurst, N.C., was chosen by Ramsey County as the architect. The final day of play will be Sept. 30, before Keller closes until the summer of 2014.

There will be significant changes to nearly half of Keller's 18 holes. The first dramatic change will occur at the first tee -- and it will be a great one.

The first hole has been a short par-4 with a quick dogleg right. The fairway goes into a valley, then turns uphill behind the tree line. For decades, foursomes have stood on the first tee and said, "Do you think they are out of there yet?"

The first tee will be moved way left, on a hill next to what's now the back parking lot. It will be a straightaway tee ball -- still a short par-4, but you will know where the lead foursome is located.

I'm guessing the average time for a Keller round will be cut three minutes by the time a group walks off the first green.

One important rescue for the Keller faithful will be the wonderful oak that sits directly in front of the par-3 fourth. There was some thought a big-time architect might want to get rid of the oak, since it's definitely a gimmick -- but it's also a post-round conversation point for seniors and hackers and short hitters:

"Did you get the ball over the tree?"

The answer is either a joyful, "I did ... middle of the green," or an unhappy grumble.

Thanks to that tree and other holes of minor change, you will recognize Keller when it reopens in a couple of years, but it's going to be different.

"If you want to play 'Old Keller,' you're going to have to get here this summer," Purcell said. "Call us. We still have a person answer the phone in the pro shop here."

That phone number is 651-766-4170, if you want to have the unique experience in 2012 of not only playing Old Keller one last time, but also making a tee time by talking to a human being.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. • preusse@startribune.com