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Different Waters Will Flow

Fear, anxiety and hope on Cobbs Creek’s closing day

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As I leave its 18th green at Cobbs Creek Golf Club for the second time that day, I look over to the nearby third tee box. On it is a young Black man, dressed in a hoodie, joggers and Nikes. His raw, athletic swing suggests he might be new to the game. As he struggles to get off the tee, up walks another golfer—a similarly-aged white guy sporting a sloppily-tucked collared shirt. By the look of his bag, it’s not his first carry around Cobbs, or anywhere else. The two gentlemen, naturally, with an of-course manner, join up to play together. No fanfare, programming, or diversity initiatives. Just golfers playing golf. 

It’s the last spin around the course the three of us will have for some time. You see, Cobbs is to shut down in just a few days, as it prepares to undergo a massive renovation and restoration project scheduled to take around two years to complete. As the subject line of a recently sent email from the course read: “We are Closing, See You in 2023.”

This impending closure hangs over the course throughout this late-October day. Fittingly, a fog fills the fairways well past noon, clinging to trees dressed up in their full autumnal flare. In this area, fall golf already brings a certain type of finality. But it’s all heightened with the sense that this is our last loop before embarking on an extended winter. I study and teach philosophy, and truly any moment can send me reflexively into a consideration of something’s greater meaning. But I’m not alone on this day: Everyone here is considering Cobbs Creek’s past, present, and future. And the excitement is tempered with trepidation. 

The ancient philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the observation that man never steps in the same river twice. More accurately, he most likely said something like: “on those who enter the same rivers, ever different waters flow.” This theme of change and sameness hangs over the day. Cobbs Creek certainly must evolve and develop, as it always has. But with the scale and ambition of this new moment, I’m not alone in hoping that this local gem is changing in order to stay very much the same.

The course has always sat on a point of convergence. Find it on the map, and you see that it’s on the edge of everything, yet still exists as something of a center. Leave it and go five or so miles in any direction and you could end up gawking at some Main Line mansion overlooking Merion, in the bustle of Center City Philly, or sipping beers with the 20-somethings in Manayunk. But no matter the approach—hopping off the Schuylkill onto City Line Avenue, through Delco by way of Route 3, or from the city-proper on Market Street—Lansdowne Avenue remains the only way into Cobbs. 

My route takes me down West Chester Pike, through the familiar stretch of towns—Newtown Square (that way to Aronimink), Broomall, Havertown (Merion’s just over yonder), Upper Darby—and then a left at the intersection with the Taco Bell and Girls Auto Clinic. State Road gives way to Lansdowne and then a right through the opening in the stone wall to arrive into the Cobbs Creek parking lot.

The crowd on the crumbling pavement knows that Cobbs Creek—“the Crick” to some—occupies a unique place in the local golf scene. The course opened in 1916, the long-awaited first public course in Philadelphia. Hugh Wilson, of Merion fame, is most often credited as its designer, though other notables played their part in the course’s formation, each in their own way: William Flynn, Ab Smith, George Thomas, Walter Travis, and even George Crump. 

In short order, the course proved immensely popular and garnered a well-earned reputation beyond the Delaware Valley. Over the decades it hosted nationally significant tournaments including the 1928 USGA Public Links, a couple PGA Tour events in the 1950s, the National Negro Open in 1936 and ’47, and the same tournament under its revised name of the United Golfer’s Association National Championship in 1956. 

On this last note, to this day Cobbs Creek is known as a place where African-American golfers found and continue to have a home. In fact, just as the renovation of Cobbs is set to begin in earnest in May 2021, the course will be inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame. Past inductees Charlie Sifford and Howard Wheeler were both Cobbs regulars in their day.

Eventually however, the glory of Cobbs began to diminish and a slow decline ensued. In the 1950s, the Army annexed a significant portion of the course. In subsequent decades the course has dealt with underfunding, infrastructure inadequacies, overgrowth, and heavy play. All this led to deteriorating conditions; a treasure in the process of being hidden. 

The same third hole where the two gentlemen joined up captures the course’s greatness and decline. It’s one of the best short par-fours in the region: a long iron off the tee to a fairway sloping right-to-left, then a wedge into a tricky green awaiting an approach just over Cobbs’ eponymous creek. But the green I look at now is essentially destroyed. Veins of sand and soil are exposed, the turf ravaged by the power of the creek that usually frames it as it flows from the back, around the right side, and then on toward the city as it passes in front of the green. This scene sums up the need for the large-scale actions, and the promise of renewal they hold. 

The Cobbs Creek Foundation, a non-profit that recently began leasing the course from the city of Philadelphia, is taking on this project. Its goals are ambitious. Though reported and rumored numbers have fluctuated over the years, the price tag for the multi-year project has been cited near $20 million. Regarding the golf course, a restoration is planned that will reincorporate elements of Wilson’s original design, with plans to make possible an alternate routing for high-level championship golf. In order to safeguard the course, as well as benefit the entire neighboring area, extensive infrastructure work will be done, especially regarding the creek due to its propensity to flood. In so many ways—physically, culturally, historically, socially—the efforts are aimed at conservation, preservation, and restoration. 

The parties at the center of these efforts are also looking to develop and enhance. In addition to the course work, a new par-3 track and a new nine-holer are planned. Combine this with the building of a state-of-the-art practice facility and its designation as the new home of the Philly-area First Tee program, and you have a situation primed to do significant good for golf and the region. 

Perhaps no one is more familiar, or invested, in the project than Jim Wagner, Vice President and Design Partner of Hanse Golf Design, and a Philly-area native. The course was a home for Wagner growing up in the game, playing matches there for nearby Cardinal O’Hara High School. It’s no surprise that Gil Hanse (also a Philly-area resident) and Wagner have devoted pro-bono design work for the project.

“The golf course fits in,” Wagner says. “[It’s] rugged, it’s hard. It’s sophisticated, it’s fun. It’s all the things that Philadelphia is. I think when you put all that stuff together: What Cobbs was, what Cobbs is, and hopefully what Cobbs will become, it’s distinctly Philadelphia, and that’s not different than any of the great golf courses around the world. They all take on a personality of where they’re located.”

But the golf is wrapped up with broader concerns. Truly, Cobbs Creek is the people’s course and its history is a people’s history. And given that its clubhouse was destroyed by fire in 2016—another sign of the need for restoration—its parking lot is very much a place to gather. It’s here, after my second go-around of the course that day in October, that I strike up a conversation with a sprightly, older gentleman I come to know as Andre. When I ask if he’s a regular, he says he has been since the ’50s. 

Of course, I’m curious if he crossed paths with Sifford. He had, finding his place among a group of Black golfers that called Cobbs home. He tells me that his uncle had regularly contended in the annual club championship, playing cross-handed. And he wasn’t the only one out there letting his left hand lay low. Most prominent among these unorthodox players was Wheeler, champion golfer and money-match menace. As we talk between the hustle and bustle of high schoolers arriving for their scheduled match, a familiar face rolls up on a cart. It’s Radio—who I had seen criss-crossing fairways throughout the day. In fact, he approached me a couple times to make sure I was the same guy he saw on the back nine a couple hours ago. Radio’s method of playing a round eschews the course’s regular routing. 

He’s not the only one—Cobbs is a place of ad hoc composite 18s, where when the pace is slow in front and open behind, someone like Radio plays the same hole three times in a row, bopping around the course in search of the next fortuitously open tee box. “Don’t let a hole hold you up,” says Andre.

Considering the imminent closure, Andre and Radio muse on what Cobbs is and has been. It’s a place of memory and that un-manufacturable quality so sought after by the contemporary golf scene: authenticity. The real thing can’t be concocted or conjured; it develops over time in and through the people who play it. Cobbs was and is a place of cross-handed players and half sets. Where the difference between the how and how many can turn on you with sudden and revelatory force. As Radio tells me, it’s at Cobbs where he learned not to judge a player by his clubs. What that player lacks in the full 14 is made up with his shotmaking. “Four 3-woods and a one putt is still par on the 14th,” he says. 

There is a real fear of the loss of all this in the wake of earnest and well-intentioned efforts. I worry about missing the mark in the midst of initiatives drawn up in officialdom, the danger of Disney-fication, losing a sense of the neighborhood in “community outreach.” Public relations instead of relationships. After all is done and the ribbons cut, what happens to the feel of the place, with all its lovable quirks and idiosyncrasies. Are carts still going to criss-cross the course with players cobbling together their own 18? What about the guy smoking heaters and selling found balls on 14 tee?

“It’s definitely a concern,” says Wagner. “My fear is that, we go to a lot of clubs around the country and around the world, and unfortunately, that’s kind of been stripped. Those characters are gone. And I just hope we don’t lose that. And we really have to try hard to keep that, because that’s the beauty of golf, right?”

Tied to this is a $20 million question that hangs in the air, to this point unanswered: How much lighter will my wallet be when I play the revamped, renovated and restored Cobbs Creek? Though the Cobbs Creek Foundation hasn’t settled on any firm figures, it has publicly acknowledged this concern and its goal of making the golf affordable. I assume, and hope, that it will carve out a system of rates where locals from both Philly-proper and the surrounding counties will be offered manageable greens fees, while out-of-towners and destination golfers will pay more, knowing the significance and excellence of the course. But the specifics of all this aren’t yet settled, and it must be acknowledged that it would be something of a golf tragedy if locals and regulars, those who have made Cobbs their golfing home for years going on decades, would be crowded and priced out of the course they shaped with their own personalities and particularities.

As I pull away from Cobbs onto Lansdowne Avenue that October day, the fog has given way to a golden autumn afternoon and the leaves appear gilded with flame. The high school match is underway, and the first tee and putting green are buzzing with the nervous anticipation of competition. I wondered about the twosome from the third tee, and how many holes they got in. This is Cobbs Creek, a center, a convergence. “See you in two,” says Andre, before we head our separate ways.

Bonus

An interview with Hanse Golf Course Design VP Jim Wagner

Bonus

An interview with Hanse Golf Course Design VP Jim Wagner