Editor's LetterJune 24, 2009

Cheap Golf & Free Beer

PHOTOS: DOM FURORE (2) AND J.D. CUBAN

PHOTOS: DOM FURORE (2) AND J.D. CUBAN

I grew up on a municipal golf course two city blocks from my Northeast Philadelphia row home. Par was 63 with nine 3s, nine 4s and nine bunkers -- no rakes or flagsticks. Dried sunflower stalks with empty beer cans stuck on top were placed in the holes, and there was an art to leaning the "flagstick" on chip shots. The tees had rubber mats except for the ones that didn't, and those were hard-baked dirt that required some of us to carry an ice pick to pierce the ground so a wooden tee could stand up. The price was right: 50 cents for golf all day. I didn't go home till dark every night, and sometimes we even pulled the car lights to the putting green for another round of quarter skins. I started playing with my high school buddies but quickly graduated to an odd assortment of all ages with no last names but colorful appellations like Stiff Arm, Moon Man, Plaster of Paris, Slippery Joe, Pots & Pans, Long Hair, Red Bear, Al the Baker, Cash-N-Carry, Tombstone, Bow Tie and an ancient stevedore of American Indian heritage named Chief Long Ball, who drove a battered VW bug with a gorgeous young brunette, not always the same one but invariably of mysterious origin and sitting in the shotgun seat.

It was not unusual when we teed off to have 30 or 40 matches for $2 each, wheeling partners against the field. Nobody had a handicap, so each match was weighted by pairing an A and a C against two Bs or some similar balance. I worked in the golf shop for two bucks an hour, but careful wagering bankrolled me all summer.

My favorite times were the off-course stakes when, for example, Danny the Weasel bet he could swallow a package of six peanut-butter crackers without a drink in the time it took the Fat Man to walk around the clubhouse parking lot. Danny made two mistakes: putting two crackers in his mouth at the same time and not realizing that the Fat Man had arrived early that morning to time his laps.

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These memories all came back with Steve Rushin's celebration of publicly owned courses (see, "A Man of The Munys Celebrates The Soul Of American Golf"). Municipal golf is alive and well in America, as evidenced by the state of my home muny, Juniata Golf Course in Philadelphia. It has never been in better shape, with greens the equal of some private clubs, real flagsticks, grass tees and par for the course up to 66.

Thanks go to Bob Wheeler, a retired cop from the neighborhood, who put together a nonprofit foundation to run the course when a succession of management companies and the city had given up hope. Wheeler got the local unions -- carpenters, bricklayers, steamfitters and heavy-equipment operators -- to work on the course pro bono (or at least for the 10 cases of beer they go through a week). "Great guys, heavy drinkers," says Bob. He also talked himself into a $200,000 grant from the state. Every cent has gone into course improvements, he says. And now Juniata is among the cheapest, best golf in Philly. Golf fees for seniors, firefighters and police officers are $20; regular play is $32 weekdays and $37 weekends -- all including carts. High schools play for free. I remember those days.

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