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Interview: Jim Wagner

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“True artistry can be found in the fine lines of a pen and ink drawing or the rugged lines of a bunker edge.” 

This is the underlying philosophy in every project that Gil Hanse Golf Course Design takes on. And while Hanse rightfully bears the brunt of the branding, it’s Jim Wagner, his vice president and design partner, who holds the illustrious title of shaper. Wagner has both created and restored iconic greens from Pinehurst to the South Pacific. But no matter where the job takes him, he’ll always have a soft spot for home: Cobbs Creek in Philadelphia. The design duo have offered pro bono work in order to restore the city’s first public course back to designer Hugh Wilson’s original standard. But it’s not as simple as moving earth: Wagner knows it’s just as important to maintain the community atmosphere which has kept Cobbs alive for more than a century. 

So you grew up playing Cobbs Creek?

I grew up right outside Philadelphia; went to Cardinal O’Hara High School. So we played a lot of matches at Cobbs Creek. Well, actually, everybody did in Philadelphia. Cobbs was great because [it] hosted a lot of the local, junior PGA tournaments, the high school matches—there was always a high school match there. So it definitely was the home for a lot of us. And it was a big boy golf course. 

A lot of the public golf courses in Philadelphia are great. But unfortunately on the ground, they’re a little limited from a length and topography standpoint. Cobbs was kind of like the place to really test your game because of the length and the water holes. 

How were the conditions back then?

Ah, shit, man. We used to go out there when you needed a hammer to put the tee in the ground because it was so hard. That was the early ’80s, and maybe even late 70s, if we could get a ride down there. But, the agronomic situation, the demands on the agronomic end, weren’t as stringent as they are today. The expectations were a lot less, so having grass on tees back then was a novelty. You used to have to find a little patch of grass to throw your ball down on the tee. So from that standpoint, whatever the hell that is, 40 years later, the conditions are actually improved. 

Where do you think the course stacks up architecturally against its “big sister” Merion?

You look at all the holes along the creek at Cobbs, and you can’t create that anywhere nowadays. Environmentalists won’t let you put golf that close to creeks. 

So you have five holes—[Nos.] one, three, four, five and 12—on the creek that are basically No. 11 at Merion. And Merion is a great golf course, obviously one of the best in the country, if not the world. You put all that together, and you’re like, “Wow.” Cobbs has got the bones of great golf, great architecture. 

And then you start adding in things like the sixth hole with a blind tee shot, which I think is awesome. It really starts to get into not only the skill level, but the mental aspect of golf. You really have to have confidence in your game, but also your ability to visualize the type of shot that you’re hitting.

How do you plan on treating the creek that runs along so many great golf holes? 

Cobbs Creek causes issues in Philadelphia, West Philadelphia, the Cobbs Creek Parkway, that whole area. There’s significant flooding and issues that are created downstream in the Philadelphia setting proper. So one of the things we’re looking at doing is to restore the creek, widen it, create wetlands and a much larger flood plain for a couple of reasons. 

One, it’s going to preserve the golf course. If we can control all those flash floods and keep the golf course from being devastated, then that’s a great use of money. 

Two, it’s going to control flooding not only for the golf course, but for that entire area. And I think that’s a hugely significant thing; the golf course is going to contribute to the success and growth of Philadelphia. And as part of it, we’re going to put back some of the history of the creek. If you look at the really cool [old] photos of Cobbs—when there were still craftsmen out there hand-building all those walls—we’re going to try to put that back as best we can to give it that old flavor. Maybe we’ll save a lot of the stone materials and use them around the green complexes and really bring back that whole look and feel of those early photos. 

So it’s about golf—obviously that’s the drive, that’s why we’re being brought in—but there’s a bigger picture. It’s about revitalizing the community.

So what’s the ethos of the renovation? Do you try to go back to 1916, to Wilson’s original stuff? Or is it a composite of the best and brightest from all the different decades?

It’s a combination of everything. 

A lot of it is going back to what was original, but we can’t put it back 100% to what was there. So it’s about restoring Cobbs, but it’s also about creating a sense of place and a sense of community. We did this for the Olympics in 2016 in Brazil; part of our concept there was to have things that all tie together to help grow the game. It was for the people in Brazil. Here, it’s for the people of Philadelphia and the entire area. 

So there will be a driving range where you can learn to pick up a club, swing, practice and get that background. But then with the par-3 golf course, once you learn how to swing the club, you can go out there and learn how to chip. You learn how to hit little wedges. You learn how to navigate around just a par 3, not dwelling on having to hit the 300-yard drive or keep the ball off of Lansdowne Avenue. It’s just about gaining confidence. The hardest part about golf is the intimidation factor of going to a driving range and hitting the guy next to you because you can barely get the ball off the ground. And I think gaining confidence in yourself is what we all need. At any point in life you need to gain confidence in yourself. 

Then after the par 3 and you’ve learned a little bit more about the game, you move on to the nine-hole golf course we’re going to build on the Karakung land, which is on the other side of Cardington Road and Haverford Avenue. Now you’re able to play regulation-length golf holes. You can go out there and just have fun. 

I think the thing that got lost in the game is you’ll go to any playground and basketball courts and people show up with basketballs. They’re shooting hoops and there’s a whole bunch of different games you can play with two, three, four, five, 10 people. All sorts of different games. And that’s the one thing golf always seems to lack. 

Nobody’s ever really going, “Hey, let’s go to the club and just play,” it’s like, “Hey, I gotta warm up 45 minutes and a I have to play 18 holes.” We’re trying to change that kind of time constraint, desire constraint type stuff. So the nine-hole course will double as that for people who just want to come play. 

You’ve been around the world to countless golf courses. Does Cobbs strike you as distinctly belonging to its spot? Like it couldn’t be replicated anywhere else?

The golf course fits in. The course is rugged, it’s hard. It’s sophisticated, it’s fun. It’s all the things that Philadelphia is. The people are fun, though we can be rough around the edges. It’s a blue-collar town, and it’s sophisticated at the same time. There’s a lot of beauty to it. 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. 

I saw the most recent price tag in the Inquirer at $20 million. People say that’s a high number. What would you say?

It’s a hard thing. We get this no matter where we go. You can go on any one of the websites and you’re like, “these clubs are spending that much money, that club is spending that much money.” But you’re never comparing apples to apples. And where things get lost. Golf is pretty close to almost always being the same number, starting from scratch. Or restoring whatever it might be. It’s a $5 to $6 million number, give or take, for just golf alone: building the greens to proper specifications, bunkers to proper specifications, things of that nature.

And then you start adding in things. I don’t know if the irrigation system at Cobbs Creek has ever really been updated, ever. They’re buying city water. They don’t even have an irrigation reservoir there. So we have to build irrigation reservoirs. We’re going to build retention areas on the golf course to collect runoff and then pump it back in and reuse it. So when you start putting all that stuff together, along with the whole revitalization of the creek, think about those numbers, that stuff is not cheap. 

It’s unfortunate, but it’s a work of art that’s kind of been neglected, right? 

On my last trip to Cobbs, as I was coming off 18, I saw a guy on the third tee going off, and then this other guy comes up and they don’t know each other—a Black guy and a white guy—and they just start playing together. That just happened organically. Cobbs seems to be a place of coming together, a special place where that can happen.

It is. And that’ll continue. It’s just going to be a two-year respite, unfortunately. You looked at it—it was playable, but it’s seriously on its way to almost being gone forever and that would be unfortunate. So the good part is, there’s a group that’s invested into putting it back and doing the right thing.