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THE FRIENDS OF COBBS CREEK

A defunct historic muny is about to get the ultimate modern makeover

There was a time when Cobbs Creek Golf Course was the showcase of Philadelphia’s collection of municipal courses and worthy of national attention. That time might be returning because the course, presently closed, is being gently reclaimed by Hanse Design, the hottest golf-architecture firm in the game, and will be operated under a business model that’s different than any other city-owned golf course in the country.

Situated at a prime location west of downtown, then as now served by rail stops, Cobbs Creek was, in the beginning, a rugged but entertaining 18. Built in 1915 within a large city park, the layout was fashioned under a restriction that prohibited any trees from being cut down, so the opening holes looped around a pasture, followed by several that weaved down a narrow valley beneath wooded slopes and the namesake creek, which nibbled at a few greens. After a tee shot up an embankment on the sixth, much of the remainder of the course played atop a plateau, with low-profile putting surfaces artfully positioned on promontories and knolls. The final hole plunged abruptly downhill, its green tucked beneath trees that lined a city street.

Cobbs Creek was part of the first generation of American golf design, one of the earliest in the movement that has come to be known as the Philadelphia School of Golf Course Architecture. From the day it opened in 1916, it welcomed all golfers, including women, who at the time were still suffering their quest for suffrage. In the late 1930s, when young Black golfer Charlie Sifford (a future Hall of Famer) left the Jim Crow south for Philadelphia, he found he was welcome to hone his game at Cobbs Creek. In the 1940s, the course became a home for the United Golfers Association, which provided professional competition for Sifford and other Black golfers prohibited from competing in PGA events by a Caucasian-only clause that wasn’t abolished until 1961.

At the start of the Cold War, the course suffered a setback when the city permitted the U.S. Army to requisition the par-5 13th hole as the location for barracks and anti-aircraft artillery guns. That led to a chain-reaction elimination of five other holes and the creation of inferior replacements, using original greens approached from different, awkward angles. Still, the reconfigured layout, with its “apologetic” par of 68, hosted the 1955 and 1956 Philadelphia Daily News Open, an unofficial event attended by professionals like Arnold Palmer, Tommy Bolt, Billy Casper and Jimmy Demaret, as well as Sifford and other UGA veterans like Ted Rhodes and Howard Wheeler.

By the 21st century, Cobbs Creek had become just another neglected muny. One golf writer termed it a “historic eyesore.” City officials, not interested in the golf business, granted a short-term operating lease to a private contractor that kept greens mowed but saw no reason to reinvest. In 2016, the clubhouse burned to the ground, and operations were subsequently run from a trailer. At the end of 2019, the lease ended, and Cobbs Creek closed. It quickly reverted to nature. What had been fairways and greens became ankle-deep clumps of mostly weeds, dotted with trash bags, beer cans, car tires and, according to reports, the occasional cadaver.

FUTURE HALL OF FAMER CHARLIE SIFFORD HONED HIS GAME AT COBBS CREEK.

Its fate seemed to be a permanent and illegal dumping ground. But in early 2022, the city announced a new long-term lease of the property to a charitable organization, The Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, which pledged to restore the famed golf course and redevelop other park property around it.

Normally a charitable foundation is established to provide continual funds for a worthy cause that might not otherwise be able to sustain itself. But the Cobbs Creek Foundation has a more ambitious plan in mind. It intends the revived course to generate an annual profit that the foundation will use to provide other worthy community services, including a youth center, after-school activities, outreach programs and scholarship funds.

CRUSADE

This course resurrection has its roots in events that occurred over a dozen years ago. Joe Bausch, a chemistry professor at Villanova since 1993, and Mike Cirba, a healthcare IT consultant and magazine course rater, met on an Internet chatroom in 2007. Both had played Cobbs Creek numerous times, and both were intrigued by its origins and alteration.

“We’d read that there was some sort of Hugh Wilson connection, but no one had been able to definitively document what Wilson had done,” Cirba says. Just upstream from Cobbs Creek lies Merion Golf Club, where in 1912 Hugh Wilson had laid out its championship East Course and family West Course in 1914.

“We also knew [Cobbs Creek] had changed over time, but nobody knew what had really happened, or when, or why,” Cirba says. “So we looked at it as a giant mystery, and between us it became a fun research project.”

The two detectives dug deep to prove Wilson’s authorship. Bausch devoted months of painstaking research into newspaper microfilm and microfiche and found many clippings that persuasively establish Wilson as the lead figure in the design of Cobbs Creek. He also found descriptions of the Cold War installations that existed only six years, from 1952 to 1958, yet caused the permanent relocation of holes. Cirba, with a background in journalism, compiled their findings in a book they self-published, Cobbs Creek Golf Course— Uncovering a Treasure. First printed in 2009, it has been updated 12 times and is now 400 pages long.

THEN AND NOW The par-3 fourth at Cobbs Creek, which closed in 2019, pictured in the 1920s and today. Photograph courtesy of Library Company of Philadelphia (then) and Lucy Maguire (now)

In the Philadelphia Archives, Bausch and Cirba unearthed the earliest known map of the golf course, dated 1915 and bearing the signature of Jesse T. Vogdes, the park superintendent. The course routing shown on it was far different from the course they had played, so they began exploring the physical property at Cobbs Creek, eventually identifying original fairways thoroughly overgrown with trees. They concluded that Wilson’s original routing was a thing of genius.

“It was an audacious routing for its day,” Cirba says. “It took advantage of a lot of wonderful natural attributes. It utilized the ground game to a great extent. There wasn’t one piece of it that didn’t make sense in terms of golf challenge and from the function of navigating people around the course.”

In awe of what they had discovered, the two started a crusade to convince the city to restore the course to its original glory.

“We went in, kind of ignorant, to the park commission,” Bausch says. “We showed them our book, told them we uncovered all this stuff. Just knock some trees down, and we’d have this great golf course.” Officials politely showed them the door.

Veteran sportswriter Joe Logan caught wind of it, and for one of his last pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he did a full-page Sunday article on Bausch and Cirba, whom he dubbed The Friends of Cobbs Creek. But even that didn’t move the needle.

In 2010, Bausch and Cirba were invited to meet with Chris Lange, a commercial real estate broker and two-time Golf Association of Philadelphia golfer of the year. They met him in the clubhouse, showed him the old course map they had found and gave him a copy of their book. Lange, who had first played Cobbs Creek in high school matches at St. Joseph’s Prep in the 1970s, had never known about the original design. They were so enthusiastic in their presentation that Lange embraced their idea of reclaiming Wilson’s layout and was determined to help make it happen.

Because the city wasn’t interested in spending money on golf, Lange sought private money. While exploring possibilities, he mentioned it during lunch one day to Larry Kent, at the time the chairman of the executive committee of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. “What you need is a nonprofit foundation to raise the funds,” Kent said.

Lange approached retired insurance executive Jim Maguire, the founder, with his wife, Frances, of the philanthropic Maguire Foundation. Maguire referred Lange to his son, Chris Maguire, an avid golfer in the family. Lange set forth a proposal that the Maguires provide the anchor funding for what he termed, “golf with a purpose,” a nonprofit that could do something to benefit Philadelphia golfers. Maguire recalls he was initially lukewarm, given the dwindling golf economy at the time.

PRACTICE PALACE A covered range will welcome golfers all year with Toptracer technology and food and beverage. Photograph courtesy of Blackney Hayes Architects

Over several months, Lange and Maguire had subsequent discussions. In one, Lange emphasized the historic heritage of Cobbs Creek. That’s when Maguire suggested sharpening the goal to “golf with a mission.” You have this historical asset, he said, that could generate revenue to support educational facilities for children of various middle and lower-income families in west Philadelphia. That was a foundation his family could support.

In 2017, Lange and Maguire established The Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, with a mission statement “to create an economically sustainable golf and educational campus which provides opportunity for the diverse youth of Philadelphia.”

It’s the “golf campus” aspect of this project that might distinguish it from other public course revivals in other major metropolitan areas. Though the Foundation will be teaming with The First Tee of Philadelphia to conduct traditional golf-and-values training at a new practice facility, and the foundation plans to offer apprenticeships in golf management and golf-course maintenance as well as a youth caddie program, much of its educational component will extend well beyond golf. Its Community Engagement Center will provide, in partnership with local schools, social-emotional programs dealing with such topics as Healing Through Mindfulness and Meditation, Building Self-Esteem and Health, Nutrition and Well-Being. Foundation employees have already been conducting sessions in 2022 at a temporary location for second-and third-grade students of two local public schools, with plans to add more schools in 2023.

THE ‘GOLF CAMPUS’ ASPECT OF THIS PROJECT IS WHAT MIGHT DISTINGUISH IT.

Also on its agenda are programs for academic achievement and grade-level equivalencies in math and reading and career-readiness programs to introduce neighborhood teens to career pathways that they might not otherwise consider, such as health care, communications and technology. As founding CEO of the foundation, Lange led the negotiations with the city to obtain a long-term lease of the property. In November 2020, foundation board member Jeff Shanahan, with previous corporate-management experience, agreed to serve as president of the foundation and handle day-to-day operations.

He signed the Cobbs Creek lease in January 2022, giving the foundation possession of the course and surrounding park for a dollar a year for a term of 30 years, with three renewal options of 20, 15 and 10 years. Among the obligations of the lease, the foundation agrees to restore the course to its original routing and establish a three-tiered rate structure (local, regional and national) that won’t price local golfers out of the market. The foundation also plans to honor the heritage of Black golfers who played at Cobbs Creek with a permanent exhibition in the proposed clubhouse.

Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney issued a formal statement soon after the lease signing. The city was partnering with the Cobbs Creek Foundation, it reads in part, “to invest in this local treasure and make sure that Cobbs Creek maintains its place on the map of America’s first, best and most welcoming public golf courses. The plan for the Cobbs Creek golf course celebrates our city’s identity, embraces a history of inclusion and brings forth a shared message of unity within our city that we can all rally around.”

The city’s press release also noted that restoration would involve more than 750 jobs, providing more than $56 million in total employment compensation, and that, when completed, the golf campus is expected to sustain 150 jobs with annual compensation of more than $6.5 million. Because the city has an income tax, those 150 jobs are projected to provide the city with $350,000 in annual tax revenue.

THE ARCHITECTS

ARCHITECTURAL LINEAGE Jim Wagner and Gil Hanse will reconstruct the lost layout designed by Hugh Wilson (above). Photograph courtesy of Cobbs Creek

It was Cobbs Creek’s good fortune that golf architect Gil Hanse moved his family to the Philadelphia suburb of Malvern in 1993. He has felt like part of the community since. In 2000, after a flood wiped out Cobbs’ third and fourth greens, Hanse showed up, borrowed a mini-excavator and reshaped the greens at no charge, simply wanting to help. Sad to say, Hanse’s remodeled greens washed away again a few floods later, but his effort wasn’t forgotten.

“When we’ve talked about which architect we’d want to restore Cobbs,” Cirba says, “we always felt that Hanse deserved first right of refusal because of his pro bono work there years ago.”

In 1995, Hanse had hired Jim Wagner, the superintendent of Wilmington Country Club, across the Delaware state line, to work as a shaper on Hanse’s reconstruction on Merion East. Within a few years, Wagner assumed the role of Hanse’s design associate. Today Hanse refers to him as his design partner. (Note: There is another golf architect named Jim Wagner who has been the longtime design associate of Jack Nicklaus. The two Wagners are not related.)

When Cirba had contacted Hanse Design in 2010 to provide an opinion on the feasibility of restoring Cobbs Creek, Wagner showed up for the walkthrough. Cirba and Bausch gave him a guided tour, pointing out the abandoned golf holes and became frustrated by Wagner’s silence. After an hour of no comment, Cirba finally asked, “Jim, are we nuts?” Wagner thought about it for several minutes, then said, “Nah, you’re not nuts. There’s something to this.”

When Bausch and Cirba met with Lange, they suggested Hanse and Wagner were a perfect fit for the restoration, so Lange met with them and worked out details. As a result, Wagner prepared a restoration master plan that was received with enthusiasm.

Hanse says he’ll be involved in the reconstruction, but Cobbs Creek will be Wagner’s, in part because Wagner happens to be a Philadelphia native, grew up 20 minutes from Cobbs Creek and played it many times in the 1970s and 1980s. “When we first sat down with these guys, we all thought this project would be completed in time for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion,” Wagner says. “We thought we’d be revealing it to the world at that time. Little did we know.”

At the time, the estimated construction costs were $12 million. By 2018, the price had risen to $20 million, and today the figure is at $50 million, a price that includes construction of 27 holes plus a short course, practice facilities, a new clubhouse, a new maintenance facility and the education center building.

“This has been a very complicated project to navigate,” Wagner says. “Every aspect has a high degree of complexity, whether it’s a gas line running through the property [which may have to be lowered] or a bat habitat that must be avoided.”

The actual Cobbs Creek runs along the western edge of the property and not only periodically floods and damages golf holes but adjacent neighborhoods, too. The stream bed has to be contained first and foremost, and 37 acres of retention basins will be created to handle overflow. An environmental engineering firm has mapped out the solution and estimates the creek restoration will cost at least $15 million. The state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers both have to grant permits for the work. The stream rehabilitation must be accomplished before the course can be rebuilt. It is expected to start later this year.

There is also the issue of irrigation. Cobbs Creek had always purchased water from the city for its fairways and greens, an enormously expensive budget item. Wagner proposes an irrigation pond be dug, served by wells drilled on site and recharged by surface water captured by drainage, to save money and provide a guaranteed source for irrigation. The wells and pond need to be in place before the course can be grassed.

A TOUR EVENT

Given the seasonal weather in Philadelphia, foundation officials believe that they should be able to achieve 43,000 rounds a year, enough to produce a profit to fund their educational goals. But to make Cobbs Creek a national destination and to generate revenue from items like logo merchandise sales, an additional element would be helpful. As has been seen at places like Torrey Pines in San Diego and Memorial Park in Houston, a PGA Tour event can be an attractive lure to traveling golfers who love to play where the pros play.

“A PGA Tour event has been part of our vision since the very beginning,” Lange admits. Shanahan says the foundation has been in discussions with the PGA Tour about such a possibility, partly because Philadelphia is the second-largest market in America without a regular tour event. Despite many hurdles—a corporate title sponsor, for instance, and an open date on the tight PGA Tour schedule—he says that tour officials have been very encouraging.

Len Brown, the chief legal officer for the PGA Tour and a Philadelphia native who frequently played at Cobbs Creek Golf Course as a youngster, confirms that. “It’s definitely a possibility,” Brown says. “It’s not a firm commitment, but we’ve had several discussions with them about what’s needed to host a tour event. Steve Wenzloff (of PGA Tour Design Services) has been working with the course designers to make the course ideal. But a lot of things have to fall into place. It may be a Champions or Korn Ferry Tour event at first, if a week doesn’t open up in the right season for several years.”

The Wagner master plan addresses the contingencies of accommodating the PGA Tour. Because he couldn’t increase the yardage of the original 18-hole routing of Cobbs Creek much past 7,000 yards (it was 6,200 yards originally), his plan converts the old adjacent 5,700-yard 18-hole Karakung Course into a third nine. (Until its closure in 2020, Karakung was the “overflow” course at Cobbs Creek, primarily designed in 1927 by Ab Smith—the golfer who invented the term “birdie.”) Five of its holes would be combined with 13 of the Wilson holes to create a composite championship course of about 7,300 yards.

Shanahan is excited about Wagner’s master plan. “This will put us on that echelon of Bethpage Black, Torrey Pines and Harding Park.”

“Public golfers in Philadelphia don’t get the chance to experience Merion or Aronimink or Rolling Green,” Wagner says. “Cobbs will allow them to play something of extremely high architectural significance from that same era.”

The future of Cobbs Creek Golf Course looks bright, with sufficient funds now available to begin preliminary work. Fundraising had started in 2019 but stalled when the pandemic hit. The effort was restarted in 2021, primarily seeking private contributions. (The Foundation expects 15 percent of funds to come from corporate sources.) When half of its fundraising goal of $65 million ($50 million for the golf campus, $15 million for the stream reconstruction) was achieved early in 2022, it was decided to begin the first phase, tree removal. In February, after permits were issued by the city, a number of trees were cut down, some to reclaim original fairways and some to improve future agronomic conditions. The dramatic rolling hillside property is now visible from adjacent streets, no longer screened from view. From spots within the golf course site, the Philadelphia skyline is now a shining backdrop.

SO FAR HALF OF THE $65 MILLION NEEDED FOR THE PROJECT HAS BEEN RAISED.

“There were a lot of potential donors who said, if you ever do actually get started, come see us at that point,” Shanahan says. “Well, now we’re showing actual progress. Trees are coming down. People are seeing activity. Activity generates more activity. We’ll be raising the funds as we go.”

The next phase will be creek reclamation, followed by construction of the educational center and creation of the massive new practice range, which will be equipped with covered tees, heated bays, night lighting, state-of-the-art shot-tracking technology and serviced by a newly created restaurant and bar.

“Our driving range will probably become the most profitable asset on the property,” Shanahan says, “given that there’s no public driving range anywhere else in Philadelphia.”

After that will come the actual construction of golf holes. Under the present timetable, the educational center and practice facility should open by early to mid 2023. Target date for the grand opening of the 27 holes of Cobbs Creek Golf Course is June 2024.