Richard Mandell adds strategic value and improves playability at Keller GC

Richard Mandell adds strategic value and improves playability at Keller GC
By Sean Dudley

Keller Golf Course has reopened for play following an extensive renovation project.

Originally designed by Paul Coates, the course in Maplewood, Minnesota, hosted the PGA Championships in 1932 and 1954, as well as the PGA Tour’s St. Paul Open from 1930 to 1968.

Architect Richard Mandell was hired to upgrade and enhance the course, and spoke to GCA’s Sean Dudley following the completion of the project.

What were your first impressions of the Keller course before the project?

My first impression of Keller was that the site topography was striking and epitomised what I feel rolling fairways should be. Although it is far from links land, the fairways did feature some links-type rolls. I saw right there that I had no reason to change this characteristic of the property. 

The routing was very well done, with only one questionable hole that ran against the grain, so to speak. The sixteenth hole played to the left yet the topography went to the right. But other than that, there was not much wrong with the routing in regards to utilising the topography. 

There were a few holes that seemed a bit too close to each other in terms of safety. For example the ninth and eighteenth greens were very close to one another, and the adjacent tenth tee was also a bit too close. From a congestion standpoint, it was a problem. There were too many groups within whispering distance from each other. I thought it also minimised design opportunities for both greens.

Greens such as the third and tenth stood out from the others, resembling more of a seventies look compared to the other greens, which had an older feel to them. Primarily, these two greens were built up off the ground a bit too much, and more so than the others on the course. They also had a bit of a diagonal orientation to them, something you don’t see much in golden age greens, but in greens from a more modern time. Neither of the greens really fit well.

However, the biggest first impression I had was in the absolute hodge-podge of sand bunker varieties. There were some that were grass faced and flashed sand, pots, squares, kidneys, and a few with capes and bays. There was no consistency in the bunker style.

I was sure that once I got my hands on an old aerial, I would see one particular style. Surprisingly, that same hodge-podge look was evident from the aerial I did find, from 1940. So that was a design flaw I hoped to correct and prayed that the golfers wouldn’t define as critical to the character of Keller. They didn’t.

Can you outline some of the upgrades you made in the masterplan you drew up?

We rebuilt the entire course from top to bottom regarding new tees, sand bunkers, greens, irrigation system, grassing of fairways, drainage work, and a large irrigation pond. Previously, the county was irrigating the course out of a large tank they had in the maintenance area parking lot. We improved some sight lines by cutting ridges down between tees and landing areas, something I may not have been apt to do if this was a private club. Since it was public, I felt it was imperative for pace of play purposes.

What’s your take on the interesting architectural history of the course and the fact that while Keller is a famous course, it doesn’t have a famous architect behind it?

The history of the golf course comes not in its architecture but mostly its history as a host to professional events over time. I didn’t really look at the project as a restoration of its architecture, but more as its restoration of its character as defined by the golfers. That character mostly came in the location of the golf holes and the topography. In other words, they didn’t want me to completely re-route the golf course. Nor did I see any reason to. 

I automatically look to the past regardless of the golf course or the charge from the client, and so that is why I got the 1940 aerial. From there, it was apparent that beyond the routing of the golf course, there was not much strategic value in the random location and style of all the bunkers. Right there, I took artistic license to come up with one cohesive bunker style.

It was a simple golden age shaping with enough flashing so that the hazards were all visible to the golfer. I took stock of what the original designer did and kept as many of the bunker locations as possible and eliminated those that were just penal. From there, I derived a strategy for each hole, adding hazards to further develop that strategy. 

The plan was to have a hole-to-hole variation in strategy. In other words, on one hole you may play close to a bunker to gain an advantage and on the very next hole you may want to avoid that same type of hazard to gain an advantage. One may play off the tee to the right in order to have a better angle into the green from the left on one hole, yet the opposite may be true on the very next hole.

Are there any other features of the project you think would be of interest?

I would like to point out that a few holes have central hazards, such as two and twelve, which one does not encounter much in municipal golf. But by providing more landing area than before, the central hazards work very well for all talent levels. Before, there was just a runway strategy for all playing very narrow fairways. Now golfers have width, which introduces angle options, leading to choices to be made by the golfer based on their own ability rather than someone else’s strength. Throughout the golf course I strove to make it strategically challenging and we did that primarily by wider fairways. In turn, the golf course is playable for many talent levels.

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