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.
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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