Golf & The CityApril 17, 2013

Down The Creek From Merion

From left: the Cobbs Creek entrance and clubhouse; Arnold, one of the regulars; Mike Harms on the Crick's fifth hole.

From left: the Cobbs Creek entrance and clubhouse; Arnold, one of the regulars; Mike Harms on the Crick's fifth hole.

Cobbs Creek Golf Club, in western Philadelphia, was named after its most diabolical hazard, which also runs along the eastern edge of Merion Golf Club, a few miles away. Merion and the Crick--as intimates often call the older of Cobbs Creek's two courses--share an architect as well. The Crick opened in 1916, four years after Merion's East Course, and Hugh Wilson, a young Merion member, was the principal designer of both.

In the early years, the Crick was so popular that players often had to wait hours before teeing off. At one time or another, the regulars have included Charlie Sifford, who moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina in 1940 and was surprised to find a course where black golfers could play without restrictions; Donald Trump, who hung out there with friends when he was a student at Wharton, in the 1960s; and Dr. J., who, I was told by a golfer with a very large head, "could palm my head--one of the few who can." On a recent Saturday morning, I arrived a little before sunrise and joined the resident men's group, called the Cobbs Creek Publinks Golf Club. Paul Cornely, a freelance headhunter and the group's leader, told me, "We have guys with no money, and we have guys with enough money to play anywhere--but they play here because of the camaraderie." Lou Camilli, the oldest member, was in the Marine Corps during World War II, and fought in the Battle of Iwo Jima. Recently, his optometrist's receptionist gave him back a form he'd filled out and told him he'd made a mistake, because the birthdate he'd written down would make him 93. "That's what I am," he told her. "And I've still got heat in my oven." He played more than 200 rounds last year.

I played with Cornely, Mike Harms and Bill Vogt Sr. Harms and Vogt are members of the Crick's maintenance staff, and they're the evil geniuses behind the annual Superintendent's Revenge, in which competitors are required to do things like tee off over parked tractors, putt into buried tomato-paste cans, hit tee-less drives from bunkers, and hole out on a green covered with yellow range balls. "This year," Vogt told me, "we're going to call it Mike and Bill's Excellent Adventure."

The Crick's creek, which comes into play on the third, fourth, fifth and sixth holes, has always been an asset and a liability. Wilson brilliantly incorporated it into his design, and Charles Barkley once got so angry at it--on the third hole, a short par 4--that he threw his clubs into the water, then stormed back to the golf shop and bought another set. But when the creek floods, as it has done with exasperating frequency, it can carry away entire greens. It meanders down the center of the fifth fairway and, over the decades, has eroded so much turf that the optimal driving strategy today is probably to aim for the water, close your eyes, and hope for a hook or a slice.

In recent years, a group of Crick aficionados led by Chris Lange, a local businessman, has developed a plan to deal with the flooding, which also affects a neighboring facility owned by the city's transit authority. The group also wants to repair the erosion and restore Wilson's routing, which was modified in 1955, when most of the original 13th fairway was appropriated for a missile base. (Today, it's a range.) The 1955 reconfiguration, by George Fazio, was cleverly done, because it preserved all 18 of the Crick's original greens. But no one believes the current course is as good as the one that Wilson designed, and architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner, whose office is nearby, have created a restoration plan. The Golf Association of Philadelphia has endorsed the project, most of which will be financed privately, and has agreed to move its headquarters to the course if the city approves it.

When we had finished our Saturday-morning round, we gathered in the Crick's coffee shop to sort out "skins and pins," at $5 a man. Hank Church, a regular, dropped by to say hello. "I had 10 inches of my large intestine removed 16 days ago," he said, and he lifted his shirt to show the scar, which was barely visible. He wasn't ready to swing a club yet, he said--but almost. He expects to be playing by the annual Salt & Pepper Cup, two weeks after the Open, in which white guys from Cobbs Creek play black guys from Juniata, another Philadelphia muny. "We crushed them last year," Cornely said, "but the trophy goes back and forth. It's just a nice day, and when it's over we all sit around and eat hot dogs and drink beer."