August 29, 2018 By: Joe Juliano — The process seemingly has taken forever, the efforts by a small yet resolute group of folks dedicated to golf and golf history who were determined to restore the luster of Cobbs Creek Golf Course, a crown jewel of city courses for nearly 50 years before falling on hard times.
For years, the low-lying holes near the creek have been areas of constant flooding when it rains. Trees and waste areas were overgrown. A city that had more pressing needs offered only minimal maintenance to keep the course in operation.
However, persistence and patience, and even faith, aided a progression of events that had begun back in 2007 with an inquiry about the existence of aerial photographs taken when Cobbs Creek was a young and vibrant course. A key step came in 2010 when commercial real estate broker Chris Lange entered the picture.
Now, the curiosity about a course that once hosted national events and received visits from the likes of Ty Cobb, Connie Mack and Joe Louis is about to be rewarded. A unanimous City Council vote in June awarded the course for $1 in rent to the nonprofit Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, an organization of which Lange is president, for the purpose of restoring, maintaining and operating the facility.
It won’t be cheap. Once the city and the foundation work out the final details of an initial 30-year lease, the foundation will present a strategic plan to the city for restoration of the course and the creek, and community engagement, and will seek to raise $20 million in private donations to fund the project.
“The plan is to restore the creek and restore the golf course, which we’ll do in an environmentally sensitive way,” said Lange, 64, a two-time Golf Association of Philadelphia player of the year from Bryn Mawr. “Then we’ll be giving back to the community in a lot of really good ways, some of which through The First Tee, but with other golf and education programs, scholarship opportunities for the kids and local high school golf teams.”
Opened in 1916, Cobbs Creek once was one of the finest public courses in the United States. It hosted the 1928 U.S. Public Links Championship and the 1936 and 1947 National Negro Open. The 1947 event was won by Howard Wheeler over Philadelphian Charlie Sifford, who 20 years later became the first African-American to win a PGA Tour event.
African-Americans were not allowed to play in tour events until 1960, but all players regardless of race were received warmly at Cobbs Creek. In his 1992 book, Just Let Me Play, Sifford wrote: “I was delighted to see both blacks and whites playing side by side there. Here was a place I could play without having to worry about some groundskeeper coming by to run me off the course.”
The 1955 and 1956 Philadelphia Daily News Open also were played at the West Philadelphia layout. A young Arnold Palmer competed in both events, finishing four shots shy of winning in the second year.
The vision for Cobbs Creek is of a facility that rivals public courses in other major cities, such as Torrey Pines in San Diego and Harding Park in San Francisco. People such as Lange, and Mike Cirba and Joe Bausch, two of the originators of the Friends of Cobbs Creek, which preceded the foundation, are excited by that vision.
So is the city of Philadelphia.
“They really understand the significance and the history,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, the city’s parks and recreation commissioner. “They understand the sort of potential that this course has from a viability and a sustainability standpoint. And I think they have the fundraising chops to get this done.”
The idea to explore the possibility of restoring Cobbs Creek began 11 years ago when Cirba, an information tech officer for a company in Allentown, requested and received aerial photographs of the course from the Hagley Museum’s Dallin Collection. Writing about his findings, he attracted the attention of others who thought the original routing could be restored.
Bausch, a chemistry professor at Villanova, contributed results of meticulous research about the involvement of the greatest young architects of the day in the design of Cobbs Creek. Much of the credit for the course design goes to Hugh Wilson, also the architect of the famed East course at Merion Golf Club, which opened in 1912.
However, Bausch also discovered the participation of architects who would become nationally prominent, including George Thomas (Riviera, Whitemarsh Valley), A.W. Tillinghast (Baltusrol, Winged Foot), and George Crump (Pine Valley).
Obtaining the original routing information was important because in 1952, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. Army wanted to put up an anti-aircraft battery on the course in the area of City Avenue. That required the removal of the 13th hole and the rerouting of holes around it. Five additional holes were eliminated, and six new holes were constructed, according to Bausch’s research.
The battery was removed from the area in 1958, and the land eventually was turned into a facility with a driving range and batting cages.
Lange, who played high school matches at Cobbs Creek while a student at St. Joseph’s Prep, began his involvement in 2010 after he played a round of golf with Peter Hill, the CEO of Billy Casper Golf, which earlier had entered into a 10-year lease to manage city courses. Hill had given Lange a copy of a book written by Cirba and Bausch about the course. Lange quickly read the book, and was hooked.
“The first time I met with Mike and Joe, the real light bulb that went off was finding out that the routing had changed,” Lange said. “That just made me realize moreso how special this golf course was.”
Enter Jim Wagner, the design partner of noted Malvern golf course architect Gil Hanse. Wagner, who originally discussed the course with Cirba and saw its potential, has done a routing that would restore what Wilson had built, plus a nine-hole course on the adjacent Karakung property. He also added a plan for a championship course in anticipation of the foundation’s someday fulfilling a goal of a PGA Tour event.
“Once the discussion of money became a reality, all these components were coming together, and we thought, ‘OK, what can we do and what’s the best way forward?’ ” said Wagner, who played at Cobbs Creek in high school matches for Cardinal O’Hara.
“You’ve got the original golf course, which through all the great research from Joe and Mike and just our knowledge on what we wanted to be a part of as far as giving back to Cobbs and all that good stuff that goes with it. We have to preserve what we can with the original golf course. That was almost a no-brainer.”
Perhaps the largest obstacle to course reconstruction is flooding, especially at the third, fourth and fifth holes, which Wagner called “the essence of the golf course.” Lange said LandStudies, an engineering company based in Lititz, Pa., that has worked at Saucon Valley and other courses, has done an initial study to restore the flood plain in that area, a plan that will result in the creation of up to 40 acres of wetlands.
Wagner has been involved with the proposed project since 2009, and he and Hanse have done their work without charge.
“They have been amazing through this entire process without receiving a penny of compensation,” Cirba said. “Without their wonderful creativity and sincere motivations for golf in the city of Philadelphia, we could have never come this far.”
A component that will please everyone from beginners to scratch golfers is a state-of-the-art driving range that will serve the needs of the community, and youth programs such as The First Tee.
“We could have our learning center there,” said William Hyndman V, executive director of The First Tee. “It would be a driving range where you could hit from both sides. You could use it in inclement weather or during the winter months, and with roll-up doors you could hit out from inside bays. It sounds really exciting.”
The foundation also will shore up fencing along the boundaries of the course and improve security to reduce vandalism and the riding of motor bikes and ATVs there at night.
All these plans require money. Lange said the Maguire Foundation, a Conshohocken-based philanthropic organization, will lead the fundraising efforts. Lovell said the city will turn over a $1.5 million insurance payment stemming from the fire that gutted the clubhouse in January 2016.
Lange also believes that area golfers, particularly those familiar with Cobbs Creek, will give back.
“There are people who want to support this,” he said. “The idea of corporate involvement, other foundation involvement and individual involvement is important in helping us make this a reality. We feel pretty confident in what we have. It can truly be, and I don’t think it will be anything less than, a great golf course.”
The enthusiasm of Lange and his foundation’s board members has been quite evident to Lovell.
“It’s really inspiring to hear how excited these grown men are about this project,” she said. “I think it’s exciting for them from a historical perspective to bring this course back to its original intent, but also because of the economic development potential and the profile-building potential that this has for our city.”
The process of getting the project from when Cirba said he and others were “starry-eyed, naïve idealists” to the cusp of beginning restoration work has been long and slow over more than a decade. Lange, however, said it never got to the point at which his patience ran out. Now, there is confidence on both sides that this venture can be done, and eventually look spectacular.