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Walter Keller, 95; Golf School Owner Taught, Coached Pro Amy Alcott

December 19, 2003|Jim Barrero | Times Staff Writer

Walter Keller, who owned a well-known golfing school in West Los Angeles and helped mold the career of Hall of Fame golfer Amy Alcott, has died after complications from pneumonia. He was 95.

Keller, who lived in Brentwood and moved to Southern California from Chicago in the early 1950s, died Monday night at UCLA Medical Center shortly after Alcott saw him for the last time.

"I knew this day would come," Alcott said Wednesday. "We were definitely a unique team, the two of us. I really think, in a way, that he was waiting to see me one last time before he died."

Keller and his wife, Helen, who died about five years ago, never had children and he often referred to Alcott as his daughter.

Alcott met Keller when she was 8, and he remained her coach and mentor throughout an LPGA career in which she has won 29 tournaments since becoming a professional in 1975. In recent years, Alcott, 47, has cut back on the number of events she plays each season.

Alcott vividly remembers her first meeting with Keller.

"I was on my way home from a drive-in with my mom and I saw a sign for the Walter Keller golf school, so I asked her if she'd take me there someday," Alcott said.

Her mother, Lea, did just that, and Alcott was awed when she set foot inside the facility. She had begun chipping balls when an annoyed Keller walked in and saw her practicing on his newly installed carpeting.

"He said, 'Little girl, get off that carpet right now,' so I was scared and said 'Yes, sir,' " Alcott said. "Then he asked me to take a swing into the net. And then another. A few minutes later he told my mom, 'You've got a little racehorse here, and I want to teach her the game.' It was six lessons for $36, and that's how I learned how to play."

Alcott, a Santa Monica native, went on to win the U.S. Open in 1980, among many other tournaments, including five majors. Keller usually was the first person she called to discuss her performance.

Before coming to the West Coast and opening his indoor golfing facility -- the Walter Keller Driving Mat and Electric Putting Machine -- on Westwood Boulevard, Keller had owned a driving range in Chicago.

"He would always give of his time very openly and readily," Alcott said. "He loved helping people and he loved interacting with people." As far back as the 1960s, Keller had developed a program to bring golf to inner-city youths and to high schools that couldn't afford the cost of playing the sport.

"This was way before there ever was a First Tee program," said Alcott, referring to a similar program created by the World Golf Foundation in 1997.

Alcott said she would always remember their last conversation.

"When I was starting out, he'd always say to me, 'Kid, get out there; you're the best, and you're only on Broadway for so long,' " Alcott said. "So when I saw him on Monday, I told him, 'Walter, you've had your own long run here on Broadway, and maybe it's time to take a rest.'

"He looked at me and asked, 'Is this heaven?' and I said, 'No, Walter, it isn't.' He paused and told me, 'Well, to me it is heaven, because you're here.' "

Funeral services are pending.

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