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

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    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
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    Green again: Vince Caltag putts at the Juniata Golf Club, a course that just a few years ago didn’t have a ‘blade of grass to stick a tee in,’ according to one local writer. Today it is again the place of wedge shots and weddings, thanks in part to the effort of local volunteers and union workers.
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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.

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.

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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.

Volunteers converted the existing cart barn to a clubhouse that can seat 120 for a meal. They traded free golf for ranger duty, ushering off the errant, nongolfing teenager. If supplies needed to be moved, guys showed up with pickup trucks. If money needed to be raised, businesses paid to have their name put on a bench.

The Juniata Golf Foundation consists of 15 business and neighborhood leaders who backed the effort and encouraged others to, largely because of Wheels' street credibility. "When you come up living in the neighborhood and you come up in sports, you end up knowing a million people," says Tom Dooley, of the heavy equipment operating engineers union. "You build your reputation, and if it's a good one, it's a good one." Wheeler, he says, is "a straight-up guy, the kind of guy you trust. When Bob asks for help, we help."

Recently, at a meeting days before the club was due to host a wedding in its ambitiously named but unfurnished "Foundation Room," board members agonized that they had no tables, no dance floor, not even bathroom partitions.

A half-hour after the meeting – "a half-hour later," repeats Wheeler – he got word that a nearby restaurant was closing and selling its contents. "We got $10,000 worth of equipment for $1,000." The wedding could go on. "It was like it was made to be – like somebody was looking out for us," recalls the self-effacing Wheeler, in as direct a reference to cosmic intervention as you might expect in these surrounds.

Golf here serves the spectrum of age groups. About 70 senior members play most every day, and ease the cash flow early in the spring by paying a $400 membership fee. The pay-as-you-go players are the working people, from Juniata and beyond, who dole out about $30 a round, which includes a cart, if one is available.

The board hopes to surpass its $380,000 budget this year and have money to put back into the course, and ultimately to help other area charities. Though he'll write grant proposals and flush out all sources of potential cash for a new clubhouse, Wheeler almost seems to favor the pitch-in approach. "The thing I like about the place more than anything is there isn't any of the cliquishness that's the downfall of golf courses," he says. "This is a family atmosphere."

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Married 30 years, Wheels has no children of his own. His prison-guard father was away for long stretches for work, and Wheeler has spent a lifetime being a surrogate father to others, as his coaches were to him.

During much of his tenure at the police department, he was assigned to oversee the neighborhood's arm of the Police Athletic League, a nonprofit group that brings sports, education, and recreation programs to 27 sites citywide. "I've always felt like I had 500 kids," he says of the hundreds who spent virtually every day at the league center. "But I maybe saw 20 parents, ever."

Golf is one more way to keep kids off the streets, he believes. The course hosts golf teams, church youth groups, clinics, Special Olympics, and students who need a break from summer school down the street.

The course's 85-acre green space offers elbow room in a community where there is little of it. The first hole is the traditional sledding hill in Juniata, and neighborhood kids can wander the course after golfers have finished up. Parents know that if their children go over to play or help out with work, they can expect them to be safe and supervised for five or six hours. Says the grey-haired, ruddy-faced ex-cop, who still spends his days in shorts and sneakers: "The kids need a place where they can stretch out."

Wheels should know.

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