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Philly's tin-cup course

Bob Wheeler, an ex-cop, taps local volunteers and union workers to helpmake the Juniata Golf Club green again. It's Philadelphia's tin-cupcourse.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 23, 2008

What 'I like about the place is there isn't any of the cliquishness that's the downfall of golf courses. This is a family atmosphere.' – Bob Wheeler

sabina pierce/special to the christian science monitor

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Philadelphia

Augusta National this is not. This is Juniata, where a defaced sign warns you to lock your car and take your valuables. Where the backs of benches advertise security services and union locals. Where the "clubhouse" is actually a cart barn. And this is the new and improved Juniata, as it inches itself out of the path of a possible developer's bulldozer.

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Conditions at the 78-year-old Juniata Golf Club, always the poor relation of the six city-owned public courses, had deteriorated in recent years, the victim of scarce funding, vandalism, and neglect. When a 2003 fire destroyed the clubhouse – and the bathrooms – there was no money to rebuild, and many golfers stopped coming. Those who did were increasingly irate at having to pay even $20 greens fees, only to encounter trash and weeds, vandalism, graffiti, and worse. Juniata was losing money, and last year the Fairmount Park Commission, which owned the course, cut off funding altogether.

It suggested to Bob Wheeler, the retired Philadelphia policeman who was club manager, that he put together a nonprofit foundation to run the course. Now, with the new club just a few months into its first season, Mr. Wheeler is credited with leading the resurrection of Juniata. "He took the idea and ran with it," says Barry Bessler, chief of staff of the park commission.

A reclamation effort began in earnest last summer. Today the course is busy, its tournaments and greens-fees business thriving. The women golfers, turned off by porta-potties introduced after the fire, have returned. And the greens, once again, are green. Joe Logan, who covers golf for the Philadelphia Inquirer, recalls visiting Juniata when "there wasn't a blade of grass to stick a tee in." Now, "for what it's trying to be, it's a success story. Juniata is a lunch-bucket golf course and they're proud of it."

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Juniata is an odd place for a golf club. It's a working-class North Philadelphia neighborhood of well-tended brick row houses ringed by industrial buildings, corner stores, and aging playing fields. Once uniformly white and Catholic, it has seen an influx of immigrants in recent years, many Spanish speaking.

Wheeler is, as they'd phrase it in Philly, a "product" of Juniata. He never actually played golf as a kid. But he is a graduate of the rough-and-tumble playgrounds and ball fields here, of the local parish grade school, of North Catholic High, and of the lessons taught about sportsmanship and character by grown-ups. Though he may have gone on to graduate from college and even to move – after retirement from the police force – to a quieter place across the river in Jersey, he never really left the neighborhood.

How could he? He had the kind of youth that makes a guy legendary in Juniata – indeed, in the dozens of Juniatas in and around Philadelphia: He was a basketball champion. The MVP the year his high school won its only city championship ever, the guard who scored when he had to and hit the crucial free throws. It sealed his reputation here and garnered civic capital he would be tapping even 40 years later.

How could you turn away when "Wheels" came asking you to be on the board of his foundation? When he needed you to sink a deck post, pick up trash, lay a cart path, paint? Golf-loving members of the building-trades unions knew Wheeler or knew of him and came forward when it looked like the course, designed by noted architect Ed Ault, might close.

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