Louis Keller, Founder
Baltusrol's Founding Father
By Dick Brown
Many of America’s great golf courses were built where they were built by successful men who had dreamed for years of creating a particular style of course once they found land that suited their dream. George Crump, Henry Fownes, and Bobby Jones were three of those men, and the names of others come easily to mind.
Louis Keller had nothing in common with these men. He had never even played the game. He was not a captain of industry, but was merely a young man who had inherited some money and a farm in Springfield, New Jersey, and who needed to earn a living. He was, however, intelligent, resourceful, energetic and possessed fairly reliable entrepreneurial instincts.
Keller's grandfather was Swiss; his mother and father were both born in France. His father was a prominent lawyer who drafted the U.S. Patent Law of 1836 and became the first Commissioner of Patents in the United States. Keller himself was born on February 27, 1857 in his parent's home on Madison Avenue in New York City. His mother, Heloise de Chazournes, was the daughter of a well-known French family in New York. Keller was 17 when his father died. There is no record of his attendance at either a preparatory school or a university. He apparently needed income but was not inclined to work a normal job. He tried a few things, including gunsmithing, but these ventures did not prosper. He tried dairy farming on his father's farm in New Jersey, without any particular success.
He was not a member of New York’s social elite, as they tended to be members of long established Protestant families while he was a second generation Catholic American. Although Keller was not a member of society, he knew many who were and he socialized with them often. It is fair to say that he was an observer and student of society, that he enjoyed socializing with members of society but had no particular urge to join it. In 1885, Keller and a partner started a newspaper devoted to society news and gossip. Two years later, they sold their paper, one assumes for a good profit. There were listings of socialites at the time but for various reasons these publications did poorly. Keller got the idea of creating a simple list of members of society, chosen only by him, called “The Social Register.” He sold it to those listed in it for $1.75 per copy and published winter and summer editions, showing the summer addresses in that season. As time went on, he expanded its coverage to 18 cities. This venture was a great success and put Keller on a firm financial footing.
At some point, he began holding an annual picnic on his family farm in Springfield, hosting all of his friends who were listed in his Register. The picnic grew in popularity and became a “fixture” that was eagerly anticipated. The affair, complete with the guest list, was reported each year in the society pages. It grew to the point that in 1884 Keller chartered a train to transport his guests to the farm from New York City. The beauty of the countryside around the Keller farm was always mentioned in those dispatches.
Keller noted that an increasing number of his acquaintances were learning to play golf and were joining clubs in eastern Long Island and elsewhere, and might be looking for a place to play closer to New York City in the fall and spring. He probably observed as well that many of his friends were summering in the New Jersey countryside and might want a place to play. He decided to start a golf club on his farm, and at long last derive some revenue from it. He hired an Englishman named George Hunter to design a nine-hole golf course and renovated his farmhouse to serve as a clubhouse. The clubhouse was always regarded as charming; and the golf course appears to have pleased the critics although Hunter never designed another one. It should be noted, however, that the first and second holes of the Lower Course are the descendants of Hunter’s work, even though these holes were re-designed a number of times since 1894. A friend of Keller’s had named his farm “Baltusrol Way” (a shortening, as we know, of the name Baltus Roll, who had farmed the land 50 years before) so Keller called his new club “Baltusrol.”
Keller launched his club in April of 1895 when he sent a letter to everyone he knew, including the subscribers to the Social Register, offering memberships with dues of $10 per year. That corresponds roughly to $240 in today’s money. Those who joined after December 1895 had to pay an additional $20 fee. By October, the golf course, clubhouse and potential membership list had all advanced to the point where Keller could begin operations, and Opening Day occurred on October 17, 1895.
The news that Opening Day was imminent was reported in The New York Times on October 10 as follows: “Louis Keller has been indefatigable in his efforts to organize the Baltusrol Golf Club and he has at last been rewarded with the success he deserves. The formal opening of the club takes place on Saturday afternoon of next week, and will take down from town a large number of golf enthusiasts. The little clubhouse of eight rooms is delightfully situated, and the links are considered by experts second to none here-abouts. The links are near Short Hills, Summit, and East Orange, and only four miles from Cranford, Roselle and Westfield, on the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Mr. Keller has a country place called Baltusrol Way and the new club is hard by. During the Autumn Mmes. John C. Wilmerding, Fellowes-Morgan, Renshaw Jones, Clement C. Moore, and others will undoubtedly arrange teas at the little clubhouse, and the pretty belles of the Oranges will serve dainties to the golfers.”
Baltusrol’s opening was grand and reported upon in length by the New York papers. The New York Times described each hole of the golf course, the results of the tournament, and a complete list of those who attended. A number of prominent women had been invited to join the Club, and a few of these were named as patronesses, and poured at the tea party which followed the golf. The reporting appeared in the society pages of the various papers.
Louis Keller’s golf club was in business, and his farm, at last, was producing revenue. His business plan was simple: he planned to lease the clubhouse and the golf course to the Club. Improvements to the course and clubhouse and land taxes would be charged to the members. Should the lease be terminated, the land and the clubhouse would revert to him. The membership Keller offered must have seemed very attractive to potential new members. Baltusrol had not incurred a large debt from land and building acquisitions and members therefore only had to cover operating costs. The dues were reasonable compared to charges at other clubs. Keller believed in offering good value, and calibrated the dues based on where members lived and how often they used the Club, saying, “We don’t believe in charging a man for more than he gets … the scale varies according to the value of the links to the players.”
The Board of Governors met on October 25, about a week after Opening Day, in Keller’s office at 35 Liberty Street in New York City. In attendance were Arthur D. Weeks, John Dufais, and Arthur Turnure. The agenda of the meeting was simple: Weeks was named President and Turnure the Treasurer. Keller was appointed Secretary. Keller proffered a lease, and it was accepted. The terms of the lease were not recited in the minutes. Keller asked for permission to accept the applications for membership of the persons who had responded to his April letter (thus we can believe that most of the first 132 members of the Club were listed in the New York Social Register) and permission was granted. He then turned over checks totaling about $500 to the new Treasurer. As Secretary, Keller was instructed to file Baltusrol’s application for membership in the USGA. The House and Golf Committees were organized, and the meeting was adjourned.
Keller retained the office of Secretary until the day he died. In British clubs, this office carries with it the responsibilities of the general manager. We don’t know if the Board tacitly vested the powers of the general manager in Keller due to his title, or because he was the lessor of the properties, or even because he had organized and launched the new Club, but they did. He chose to operate with a low profile. Most of his correspondence began with the phrase “I am instructed by the Board of Governors to …” He saw to it that he was always named to the House or Golf Committee, and sometimes both. One assumes that on many occasions he suggested to the Board that they instruct him to do this or that, and they complied. Keller was a very private man. He was rarely photographed, and the press hardly ever interviewed him. On the occasions when he was asked a question by the press, his response invariably was “I will inquire of the Board.” Most decisions relating to the operation of the golf programs and the clubhouse were left to those respective committees. The members paid for capital expenditures and the Board voted on annual budgets. It would seem that the hire of George Low in 1903 to be the Golf Professional and Green Keeper was one of the most important events in the first decade of Baltusrol’s history.
In the early years, there was a large annual turnover in membership. As many as a third of the members would join in January and resign in October of the same year, before the following year’s dues became payable, if they decided they were not taking to the game. This told Keller that Baltusrol needed to be competitive with other clubs and inspired him to keep improving the golf course and maintaining an interesting schedule of exhibitions and tournaments. By the beginning of 1898 the course had been lengthened to 18 holes. George Low, who was skilled in golf course design, was turned loose and made continuous improvements for more than 20 years until construction of the present courses began. The club tournament schedule was brisk. The first club championship was held in January 1896, and various club events were scheduled for almost every weekend. National and regional championships kept the Club constantly in the headlines. USGA Championships were played at Baltusrol in 1901, 1903 and 1904. Baltusrol was one of the founding members of the Metropolitan Golf Association and the New Jersey State Golf Association and hosted frequent tournaments sponsored by those organizations.
By 1905, Baltusrol was regarded as one of the leading golf clubs in America, and the membership and financials were all healthy. Keller was receiving yearly lease payments of 6% of the value of the land and the original value of the clubhouse. The first test of the relationship between Keller and Baltusrol’s membership occurred on March 27, 1909 when the clubhouse burned down. The first task was to fairly divide the funds received from the insurance company. Keller was to be reimbursed for the value of the original structure before the various improvements which the membership had approved and funded were built. Outside experts made the required calculations, which were quickly accepted by both sides. Keller made arrangements to have his personal residence altered to serve as a temporary clubhouse, and the Board engaged an architect, Club member Chester Kirk, to design a new clubhouse.
When the plans and estimates for the new clubhouse came in, it was clear that the cost would far exceed the monetary recovery from the insurance company. Members subscribed part of the additional cost. Further outside financing became unnecessary when Keller offered to take back a mortgage on the new clubhouse at 6% interest, with his one stipulation being that he have the right to approve the final plans. The Board accepted the offer but two potential sticking points remained: the membership thought it would be unwise for Baltusrol to build an expensive building on land which it did not own, and it also would be unwise to tie such building to a golf course whose lease had only a few years to run. Keller agreed that both points were valid. Thus, he extended the lease on the golf course and sold the four acres around the clubhouse to the Club. Baltusrol never looked back. The membership continued to grow; in fact, it had to be trimmed back to 500. George Low continued his work on the golf course and Baltusrol was awarded the 1915 U.S. Open. That event was a great success and earned the Club and its golf course a great deal of praise.
The gray beards on the Golf Committee knew different. They knew the Open had exposed serious flaws in the Old Course. The tees and greens were too close to one another, three greens were crammed especially close together, and—a song we hear often these days—the course was too short. The Golf Committee also was hearing mutterings about the difficulty of securing tee times, and there was talk throughout the Club of the need for a new course. Keller was listening to all of this and proceeded quietly to buy up and secure options to purchase some 500 acres to the west of the existing property. He decided by the summer of 1916 that the time had come to start building a new course, and in October of that year wrote the Board that it was time to act. He said he was willing to sell or lease his newly acquired land to the Club; he recommended a lease but wrote that he could understand the wisdom of an outright purchase. The Board appointed a committee to consider the matter, and it finally decided that the Club should buy the land under the Old Course as well as the new land. Keller essentially bankrolled the transaction by taking back mortgages for a large portion of the purchase price. In 1918, Keller hired A.W. Tillinghast to design a new course, which quickly became a plan for two new courses, the Lower and the Upper, and construction began almost at once. The creation of the “Dual Courses” and the bold plan to rip up the Old Course has been documented in previous articles in the Baltusrol News.
It is clear that the new clubhouse and the dual golf courses, both of which are highly regarded, define Baltusrol. Those two accomplishments undoubtedly were Keller’s greatest legacies to the Club. It is clear, too, that Keller’s initiative in getting the new golf course project off the ground saved the Club from mediocrity. Yet he contributed much more. It must be remembered that Keller served as the de facto general manager for more than 25 years and during that time did much of the heavy managerial lifting. The Board minutes are replete with records of matters that he handled, ranging from the construction of the Carriage House behind the clubhouse (it began its life in 1910 as a garage, complete with a sitting room and dining room for chauffeurs) to the mundane planning of new sewer lines to the unpleasant task of disciplining unruly members. He attended hundreds of Board meetings during his time, but missed the December 1921 and January 1922 meetings due to illness. He died suddenly of an intestinal illness in February 1922, when the Dual Courses were just four months away from completion. Louis Keller began his life in New Jersey thinking of Baltusrol as a farming venture for making money; by his death, Baltusrol was a thriving golf club that had become his life’s work and legacy.
Baltusrol’s Board of Governors met in New York City the day after Keller died. The minutes of that meeting read:
The President announced the death of Louis Keller and upon motion of Mr. Parker Page, seconded by Mr. Hasbrouck, the following preamble and resolution was adopted: WHEREAS today this Board of Governors meets with a vacant chair. Yesterday death with its final summons called from among us Louis Keller, founder of the Baltusrol Golf Club, a member of its Board of Governors since its very beginning, and always the most potent influence in the development and administration of the Club; therefore BE IT -RESOLVED that there be placed upon the records of the Club this expression of our profound sorrow and our expression of appreciation for his services to the Club, the value of which only time and experience can adequately define. His love for this Club, his genius and indefatigable work in managing its affairs were noteworthy characteristics that contributed to the enjoyment of all its members, AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that as a mark of respect to our late colleague this meeting is now adjourned.”
The Board members, as they left the meeting that day, were unaware that Keller had performed one last selfless act for the Club. When his will was read, it was discovered that he had directed his executors to destroy several notes that evidenced Baltusrol’s debt to him.
The author wishes to thank the staff at the Social Register Association for the assistance they provided in researching this article.