At Juniata Golf Club in North Philadelphia, which regulars joke was for years the city course that the city forgot, the back-from-the-brink-of-death story just keeps getting better.

The latest improvement, I kid you not, is that there are indoor bathrooms with running water and toilets that flush!

And that's not all. Out on the course - where there had been more weeds than sand in the bunkers and precious little grass on the tees - things are, well, downright



It's also hard not to notice that the trash that once littered the course is gone; the fairways now boast 200-, 150- and 100-yard markers; tees have new signs that tell you what hole it is; and the operators have dotted the course with benches to rest the weary.

"They've done a beautiful job just since last year," said Ed Pioprowski, 73, from Oxford Circle, who was playing a round at Juniata recently.

Rocky Sgrillo, 36, a Philadelphia firefighter from Port Richmond who was coming off the ninth green, agreed. "It's definitely better," he said. "Lots of improvement."

Staff Ferguson, 69, a retired Philadelphia police officer and Juniata regular for 10 years, said the same.

"The price is right," Ferguson said. "The conditions are improving. They are unbelievably better. Bob had a dream, and it's coming true."

Bob is Bob Wheeler, the retired Philadelphia police officer who has run Juniata for the last dozen or so years.

"I am putting in a lot more hours, but that's OK because this is what we wanted," he said.

For years, as various management companies tried and largely failed to do the best they could with the resources they had, Juniata always got the short end of the stick.

As if deteriorating course conditions weren't trouble enough, things took a turn for the worse in 2003 when the modest clubhouse burned to the ground. There was talk of using the insurance money to rebuild, but it never quite happened.

With no other option, Wheeler turned one end of the drafty cart barn into a makeshift clubhouse, albeit with no bathrooms. A couple of portable toilets had to suffice.

Don't laugh. Things got worse. With the club forced to share its small maintenance crew with another city course, conditions got so bad two years ago that Juniata started into what can be described only as golf-course death throes. Regulars became disgusted. Golfers stopped coming. Something had to happen, or else. Finally, it has happened.

The latest management company, Billy Casper Golf, which started work here in January, would take responsibility only for Cobbs Creek and Karakung in West Philadelphia, FDR in South Philadelphia, and John F. Byrne in the Northeast.

The two other city courses, Walnut Lane in Roxborough and Juniata, have been turned over to nonprofits to run. That brings us back to Wheeler's dream.

With Wheeler as executive director of the Juniata Golf Foundation, which he formed and stocked with business executives and civic leaders from the neighborhood, Juniata Golf Club has begun to reclaim its self-respect.

First, Wheeler handpicked superintendent Ron Henderson, who had impressed him when he worked there years before. Then, Wheeler, a Juniata lifer himself, went hat in hand to a bunch of his old buddies - plumbers, carpenters, electricians, bulldozer operators, you name it. They responded.

"Most of us grew up in Juniata, and we don't want the place to close," said Tom Dooley, from the Operating Engineers union, Local 542, whose members have done work on the course and cart paths.

In large part, Dooley said, the union guys pitched in because it was Wheeler - "Wheels," as he calls him - who did the asking.

"We all know Wheels," Dooley said. "Wheels is kind of like a local hero to us from his days at North Catholic. He was a great basketball player, MVP of the Catholic League his senior year, and his team won the city championship. North Catholic ain't done that a lot of times."

So far, 20 or 30 volunteer craftsmen, working mostly nights and weekends, have expanded the makeshift pro shop, built commodious men's and women's restrooms, and morphed the rest of the cart barn into a spacious banquet room they intend to call Foundation Hall - all air-conditioned and heated. Fancy the facility is not, but so far, in just a few weeks, as word got out, it has hosted a wedding shower, a wedding reception, and a graduation party.

If the course is cleaner and well-patrolled, it is because Wheeler and his No. 2 guy, Paul Hicks, have enlisted a couple of dozen regulars to barter their time and efforts for unlimited golf.

"I come here three or four times a week and check all the trash cans to make sure they're empty," said John Ierardi, 66, from Bensalem, one of the volunteers, who prefers to play his golf in his old neighborhood with his old buddies. "It makes you feel like you're part of it."

Wheeler dreams of a new clubhouse where the old one used to be, to be financed by fund-raisers and grant money if it can be landed.

For now, though, he is satisfied to report that rounds are up at Juniata. The leagues are starting to return, and, if you need to use the restroom, well, there is one.