Why this muni (where Sam Snead won and gangsters played) was my favorite course of 2021
At GOLF.com, our hobby is also our job. That means, just like you, we spend much of the year teeing it up high, swinging hard and trying to avoid double bogeys. But some courses we stumble upon are simply more memorable than others. Here, in a breakdown of the favorite public courses our staff played over the past 12 months, are those spots.
The entire left side of the par-4 1st hole at Keller Golf Course is lined with a tall netting, making sure balls from the driving range (and 1st tee) don’t wander too far astray. Real golfers know this is significant. A massive net or fence dividing one part of the property from another is a strong indication of a good municipal golf course.
Keller, a historic Maplewood, Minn., course in the St. Paul suburbs was not the best course I played in 2021 (although it wasn’t far off). But a couple of great private clubs aren’t letting me walk in whenever I want, and I only played 12 holes at the venerable Pinehurst No. 2. So that brings me to Keller — my favorite course I stumbled upon in 2021, and one that I want to tell you about. It checks all of the boxes. Now let us count the ways.
It’s a municipal course. There’s something endearing about that.
It’s got history. To save money, Keller was designed by Ramsey County chief engineer Paul Coates, who reportedly did his own research out east and was a big fan of Donald Ross. Keller opened in 1929, and according to club lore it was even a spot where gangsters occasionally teed it up in the 1930s. The most famous story involves John Dillinger, who legend has it was playing at Keller when word got out the FBI was on its way for him. He dropped his clubs, ran, hopped on a nearby train and got away.
It’s hosted the best golfers in the world. The St. Paul Open at Keller was a PGA Tour stop from 1930 to 1968, and guys like Sam Snead, Horton Smith, Ken Venturi and Ray Floyd all won it. Snead even won a Western Open there. Keller hosted two PGA Championships, in 1932 and 1954, and the St. Paul Open was one of the first events on Tour to allow Black players. After the Tour left, the LPGA’s Patty Berg Classic came in from 1973 to 1980. Berg, a Minnesotan and one of the greatest female players ever, served as the tournament host. The club’s storied past — minus Dillinger jumping on a train — is all wonderfully displayed in its clubhouse.
It’s got the perfect amount of muni quirk. Two huge trees come into play on the par-3 4th and par-4 17th. The oak on 4 is directly in front of the green, but you can’t go long either — the cart path swings around the back of the green, and with little fringe on the back side a miss long is ricocheted into the woodsy abyss. (The miss is right, people.) The tree on the 4th hole, which wasn’t always the 4th hole, has been there since the course opened. You either love it or you hate it. I love it. Gene Sarazen? Maybe not so much. Word is he made a big number on the hole, withdrew and never returned to the St. Paul Open.
It’s old school. When it’s your group’s turn on the tee, a pro shop attendant announces so on the old-timey, crackling PA system. This also falls under the category of wonderful muni quirk.
It’s walkable. Walking 18 holes is good for the soul.
It’s in outstanding shape. Paul Diegnau is the long-time superintendent, and Paul and his staff deserve a ton of credit. The course underwent a massive $12 million Richard Mandell renovation that took nearly two years and was completed in 2014. It’s almost unfair to minimize such a painstaking project to just a sentence or two, but with apologies to everyone that’s what we’re going to do here: New tees, greens and bunkers were built, a new drainage system was installed and fairways were re-grassed. A new clubhouse and pro shop were built for good measure. The course itself is country-club conditioning at a municipal price. Oh! That brings me to my next point. The dough.
It’s affordable. You can walk 18 holes for $47 and a cart is $17 more.
It’s got great earth, man. Keller is a parkland course with lots of trees, yet it’s one of those parkland courses where it’s not near as intimidating as it looks. About 500 trees were removed during the renovation and about 180 were replanted. The trees will frame holes from tee boxes but, for the most part, won’t completely stifle you when you’re among them. We love that. The terrain itself is wonderful. There’s significant movement and elevation changes, especially as you get closer to the greens.
It has the perfect mix of golf holes. Keller, from the tips, is just under 6,700 yards, but the blue tees at 6,200 provide a nice compromise. Consecutive good shots can be rewarded with reachable par-5s. There’s mystery with a handful of blind shots. And of course, a touch of peculiarity with the aforementioned towering oaks. There’s lots to like.
It’s challenging yet playable. It’s in that perfect sweet spot of a golf course — difficult enough to test you but not so much that a bad round will make you want to quit the game or never return. We’ll call it fair (at least those who don’t mind those fairway oaks will call it fair). There’s some water and bunkers around greens, but for the most part a miss there will be penalized with a tricky chip from a runoff area or thick rough.
Nothing beats a good 19th hole. Check out the Keller Grille. The bar/restaurant is inside the new clubhouse and offers a strong selection of post-round eats and drinks. No great golf experience is complete without a refreshing post-round debrief at the bar or patio. That’s what makes Keller my favorite new course from 2021. It didn’t just do a few things right. It did everything right. See you in 2022, pal.