PGA Professional Tom Purcell: Building Friendships and Preserving Tradition at Keller Golf Course

By Matt Just

St. Paul was the place to be in 1979. Herb Brooks was assembling his U.S. Olympic Hockey team that would soon shock the world. Keller Golf Course was proudly hosting the LPGA Patty Berg Classic. And Tom Purcell was in the midst of his rookie year as the head PGA golf professional at Keller, the iconic Ramsey County course in Maplewood currently undergoing extensive renovations.

The winner of the 1979 LPGA Patty Berg Classic was Beth Daniel, and Beth returned in 1980 to defend her title. I recently had the pleasure to speak with Daniel by phone, and she fondly recalled her love for Keller while expressing her excitement for the planned renovations. Daniel noted what a special place Keller is, with its robust local and national golf history. She also mentioned that Keller launched her hall of fame career and is hopeful to come back once renovations are complete. “I remember when she won out here – we were both rookies,” said Purcell. “She had confidence, and you could see it.”

I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Purcell over the past few months, and the memories and philosophies that he has shared with me are as special and unique as Purcell himself. He once told me, “Matt, there is no other golf course in Minnesota with the history Keller has, but the real history is within the men’s and women’s clubs. The people of Keller are what made the difference in my career.”

Last month, Purcell and I were engaged in a conversation when he said, “Matt, don’t ever forget that golf is a people business. The golf courses and head pros that stand the test of time offer a great playing experience, but they must also offer a memorable personal experience. Golfers return when they felt appreciated.” Words of wisdom from a true veteran.

Tom went on to explain that he continually tries to do something new for his regulars. ‘Hey pro, what’s next?’ ‘Hey pro, what event are we doing next week?’ These are questions Purcell has heard daily throughout his career.

Along with taking care of his members and creating new ideas, Purcell believes in personal relationships. “I hire a young assistant, and I have him sell range balls out at the range. I would rather hire and pay someone to be at the range instead of plugging in a range machine. Range machines do not promote golf, people do.”

Purcell developed this relationship-based management style when he was a young PGA apprentice at North Oaks. “I looked up to the head professional out there. He was constantly picking up trash and cleaning the counter, but yet he always had time for everyone,” Purcell explained. This level of service is why the Keller men’s and women’s clubs always have an annual wait list.

Keller is closed for the 2013 golf season, but as the construction process forges ahead, Purcell is serving as a consultant for the course architect and County Planning Department. Purcell has also helped steer discussions regarding Keller memorabilia and how to tell the course’s special history in the new clubhouse. He recently met with the committee at Bunker Hills Golf Course to observe the best practices Bunker implemented during their redesign.

Purcell’s colleagues realize what a key moment this is in Keller’s history. Brad Behnke, head PGA golf professional at The Ponds at Battle Creek, recently told me, “When Keller reopens, it will be an amazing asset to the community. Keller has always had the history; now it will have beautiful, modern playing surfaces.”

But don’t let all the renovations fool you – Purcell is quick to point out he isn’t ready to overhaul his focus on relationships and service. “The external look of Keller will be modern when we reopen, but the values will stay traditional.” It’s those traditional values that make Keller, and Purcell himself, a legend.

Paul Diegnau, Keller’s superintendent, is blogging throughout the construction process. To view the latest photos and updates, visit kellerrenovation.blogspot.com or visit www.ramseycountygolf.com.

Keller Golf Course is owned and operated by Ramsey County Parks and Recreation. Built in 1929, Keller has hosted several PGA and LPGA golf tournaments, including the 1932 and 1954 National PGA Championship, the 1949 Western Open, the Saint Paul Open from 1930-1968, and the Patty Berg Golf Classic from 1970-1980. The scenic course, which is a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, has been recognized by both Golf Digest and The Wall Street Journal as a premiere public golf facility.

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