The Legend of Gene Sarazen and Keller Golf Club

Photo of Keller Golf Club [1]

Stop me if you’ve heard this: Legendary golfer Gene Sarazen played Minnesota’s Keller Golf club during a PGA event and got so frustrated on the 13th hole he stormed off and never returned.

That’s how the story was told to me by one of my co-workers who also happens to be our school’s golf coach. His team had played there recently and he sent me a golf digest article that references the story. [2]

“[The Course Designer] did leave one aberration, a tree directly in front of the 13th green (now the fourth). It's a par 3, only a 6- to 8-iron shot, but the tree is tall and you need to make sure you carry it. Gene Sarazen made too sure one year, flew the green into some thick rough, hacked out a 12 and stormed off -- a WD, vowing never to return. He was good to his word.” - Al Barkow - Golf Digest, March 18, 2008.

The coworker who told me this story also happens to be a member of the Calamity Calendar Committee – an elite group of teachers who seek to find humor, rather than lament, in our tortured Minnesota sports history.

Hearing the Sarazen story made me think it would make a great Calamity Calendar entry. A professional golfer critical of a Minnesota golf course? It wouldn’t be the first such entry we have on the Calendar. The 1970 U.S. Open was played at Hazeltine National G.C. in Chaska, MN. On the first day of the tournament, over half of the players shot 80 or more. Only one player broke par, England’s Tony Jacklin who shot 71 and led by 2 strokes. After finishing his opening round in 2nd place, Michigan golfer Dave Hill savaged the course with several not so Minnesota-nice statements - including:

“If I had to play this course every day, I'd take up another game.” “They ruined a good farm when they built this place. All it needs are a few cows and 80 acres of corn.'' “They ought to plow up the whole thing and start over” “The guy who designed this course had the blueprints upside down.”

To Minnesotans, Hill’s comments felt personal. Taking shots at Hazeltine was the equivalent of taking shots at us. We Minnesotans are proud of our culture, especially when we host events that put our state in the national spotlight. It doesn’t mean however, that we lack a sense of humor. We often make jokes at our own expense about things that make us uniquely “Minnesotan”. But an outsider doing it? How dare they? Someone, hold my hotdish!

This Sarazen story was right up that same fairway. For any event to be on the Calamity Calendar, we need to find the exact date it happened.

A little background history on Sarazen and Keller helped us find a date range. Sarazen turned pro in 1920 winning 3 PGA championships (‘22, ‘23, ‘33), the US Open twice (‘22, ‘32) the British Open (‘32) and the Masters in 1935. Because of lifetime exemptions he was able to golf in professional tournaments into the 1970’s.

Keller Golf Club opened in 1929 in what is now Maplewood and held its first PGA events beginning with the St. Paul Open in 1930 and the PGA championship (a major) in 1932. It would host another PGA championship in 1954 and continue to host the St. Paul Open until 1968 (with a few years off for various reasons, WW II etc). In addition to PGA events, Keller hosted the LPGA Patty Berg Classic from 1973-1980. As professional golf evolved, the game required longer distances to challenge the players, which is one of the reasons Hazeltine was built. Keller was no longer able to compete with more modern courses to host PGA events. The St Paul open was renamed the Minnesota Golf Classic and would be moved. The last tournament St. Paul Open/Minnesota Golf Classic was held at Keller in 1968.

In my initial search to find the date that Sarazen walked off Keller’s 13th, I found a Minneapolis Tribune story from 1951 about that summer’s St. Paul Open. According to the Tribune, a then 49-year-old Sarazen had made his triumphant return to Keller Open for the first time since 1934. He shot an opening round 67 and scored a birdie on the dreaded par three - 13th hole that had troubled him so many times. [3]

“It was Sarazen’s first appearance in the St. Paul Open in 17 years. He hadn’t been back since that memorable day when he took on horrendous eight on a par 3 hole to blow himself out of the tournament when he looked as though he had it in the bag on the final day.” - Glen Gaff, Minneapolis Tribune - July 27, 1951. [4]

If that article is accurate, the part of Sarazen never returning? Clearly not true. Unless it happened after that 1951 event. In 1951, Sarazen was no longer in his prime. It’s highly unlikely that the story would have gained legendary status if it happened in his later years. But on the odd chance it did happen after 1951, it would be more likely that I would have found mention of the event in newspapers. I didn’t.

It’s also clear from that Tribune story that he took an extended break from the course because of his frustration with the 13th hole. Sarazen acknowledged as much in the story saying, “The hole is a lot different today.”, as opposed to the last time he played Keller. Another interesting thing to note from that story – it stated that Sarazen shot an 8 on the 13th the last time he played here. Not a 12, as the golf digest article states.

Spoiler alert - I found some newspaper articles that said he shot a 6, some even said 9. You can see where this is going. For those of you who have read my blogs in the past, you know it’s not uncommon that I find parts of a story that aren’t true. Ever heard of a fish story? Minnesota is also famous for its lakes and fishing. We’re very accustomed to hearing a good “fish story” - a story told about catching a big fish. Each time the story is told, the size of the fish changes, often getting bigger with each retelling.

Back to Sarazen. The story about his 1951 return to Keller seemed like a good lead. The good news was that now, I had an actual year. In the 1951 article, the Minneapolis Tribune reported Sarazen’s last time playing Keller was 1934. Should be easy to find the exact day now, right?

The 1934 St. Paul Open was held at Keller on July 13-15. Upon looking up the results, Gene Sarazen’s name was not present. As a matter of fact, on the days that the tournament was held, it was reported that Sarazen was in England playing in an exhibition. [5]

The 1951 article said it was 17 years ago in 1934. Could the 1951 article have been a misprint? Maybe it was 16 years, or possibly 18? Thinking I may have the wrong year, I began looking for the dates of all the professional tournaments held at Keller. This is the point I went head first down the rabbit hole.

In addition to searching old newspapers, I found a list of tournaments from Keller’s own historical documents: [6]

1930 St. Paul Open (August 15-17)

Sarazen played in the inaugural St. Paul Open, shooting a course record 67 and led the tournament after the first round. On day Day 2 it was written that Sarazen had a bad day putting and finished with a 74 falling to 3rd. After similar rounds 3 and 4, Sarazen ended up finishing the tournament in 5th place.

Sarazen’s scores: 67-74-73-74 = 288 – Tied for 5th place

1931 St. Paul Open (July 24-26)

Sarazen’s scores: 71-73-77-74 = 295 - Tied for 20th

Sarazen finished the 1931 St. Paul open with a total of 295, 17 strokes behind the leader Horton Smith. Note the 77 in round 3. Could that have been a meltdown on the 13th? Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any documentation of it, but some quotes seem to suggest there was some frustration there .

“It took him eight rounds to do it, but Gene Sarazen finally beat the jinx on the short 13th hole.” [7]

Chandler Folman, Minneapolis Tribune - July 27, 1931.

Also, he didn’t walk off the course. By all accounts Sarazen finished the tournament in good spirits, and even though he was well out of contention was seen laughing and joking with other golfers.

Interesting side note: Sarazen’s course record was broken by St. Paul’s own Harrison (Jimmy) Johnston, a former national amateur champion, who shot a 66 on day 2 of the 1931 tournament. That record was then broken by Ed Dudley who shot a 66. [8]

1932 PGA championship (August 30 – Sept 4)

In 1932, Keller hosted the PGA championship and because of that, the St Paul open was not played that summer. Sarazen was mysteriously absent from the tournament. It was reported that he failed to qualify.

1933 St. Paul Open (June 2-4)

Prior to the 1933 St. Paul Open, it was reported that Sarazen would indeed play in the tournament, despite how he felt about the course.

“...he is one pro who has played Keller without finding something nice to say about it. But, like it or not, Sarazen will be one of the star field to compete in the fourth annual St. Paul Open at Keller…” - Minneapolis Tribune - April 29, 1933. [9]

He ended up NOT playing in the tournament that year and instead did an appearance at the North Shore Club in Appleton, Wisconsin. [10]

1934 St. Paul Open (July 13-15)

As we mentioned earlier, in 1934 Sarazen was in England for an exhibition on the same weekend as the St. Paul open. He would not return to play the St. Paul Open until 1938.

1938 St. Paul Open (July 29–31)

Sarazen’s scores: 70-74-73-73 = 290 - Tied for 26th

1939 St. Paul Open (July 28–30)

Sarazen’s scores: 70-67-69-73 = 279 tied for 5th

1940 St. Paul Open (July 26-28)

Sarazen was set to play the 1940 Open, but left unexpectedly before the tournament began.

“The stocky Italian left for his home in the east without comment, but it is believed the heat wave was the cause.” - Louis Greene, Minneapolis Tribune, July 24, 1940. [11]

Heat wave? That sounds fishy. Could Sarazen have had an issue with the 13th hole during a practice round? Whatever the reason, Sarazen did not return to Keller until 1951, 12 years after his last official tournament appearance.

1951 St Paul Open (July 26 – 29)

Sarazen’s scores: 67-69-70-75 = 281 (Tied for 31st)

After 1951, it seems he never played in a tournament at Keller ever again.

Photo of Sarazen at Keller in 1951 [12]

What have we learned?

We learned some Minnesota golf history! A lot of what I do is a historical treasure hunt. Sometimes I find something lost and forgotten. Other times, the treasure doesn’t it exist. Even then, it's still fun going down the rabbit hole and learning new things along the way. In other, words, no historical journey is wasted.

Here’s what we learned about the Sarazen story:

1. Did Sarazen get frustrated with Keller hole #13? Yes.

2. Did he walk off the course in the middle of a tournament and take a WD because of that frustration? No. Based on my research, he finished every tournament at Keller he played in.

3. Did he withdraw from a tournament? Yes. But it was before the 1940 tournament started. Not during play.

4. The “Never to return” part? He returned after a 12-year break between tournaments at Keller.

Could it be that the Sarazen story is an amalgamation of a many different Sarazen stories, and over time they somehow got blended together? This seems to be the most likely answer.

Even then, after all that research I wondered if there was something I had missed, some detail that escaped me. Admittedly, I’m not the greatest golf mind, and therefore… not the greatest golf historian.

In an attempt to silence those doubts, I reached out to a local Minnesota Golf Ambassador. I asked him if he’d ever heard the Sarazen story and if so, did he know any details about it?

His response?

“Never let facts get in the way of a good story, me boy.“

In hindsight, that’s probably the best way to leave it.


  1. Keller Photo. Minneapolis Tribune Staff Photo. The Minneapolis Tribune ( July 30, 1938.

  1. Barkow, Al. "History Calls" Golf Digest. March 18, 2008.

  1. Hartman, Sid. "49-Year-Old Sarazen Beats Keller's No. 13." The Minneapolis Tribune ( July 27, 1951.

  1. Gaff, Glen. "47 Smash Par in Record Score Bust." The Minneapolis Tribune ( July 27, 1951.

  1. Minneapolis Tribune. "Sarazen, Kirkwood Defeated in England." July 15, 1934.

  1. Keller Men's Club. "Keller Professional Golf Tournaments 1930 - 1968."

  1. Folman, Chandler. "The 19th Hole." The Minneapolis Tribune ( July 27, 1931.

  1. United Press. "Johnston Bests Sarazen Record." Nebraska Daily News-Press ( July 26, 1931.

  1. Minneapolis Tribune. "Gene Sarazen will play in St. Paul Open." ( April 29, 1933.

  1. Osh Kosh Northwestern. "North Shore Club." ( May 30, 1933.

  1. Greene, Louis. "From Tee to Greene." The Minneapolis Tribune. ( July 24, 1940.

  1. Sarazen Photo. Minneapolis Tribune Staff Photo. The Minneapolis Tribune ( July 27, 1951.

  1. Wikipedia - Keller Golf Course

  1. Cole, Dan. Quote. June 3, 2021.