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By Club and Resort Business

September 5, 2018

The group has secured rights to the 102-year-old Philadelphia property for $1 and will seek to raise private donations to help restore the course’s original Hugh Wilson design. The vision is to create a new facility that rivals top public courses in other major cities, such as Torrey Pines in San Diego and Harding Park in San Francisco. 

A small yet resolute group of people dedicated to golf and golf history has been determined for some time to restore the luster of 102-year-old Cobbs Creek Golf Course, which was the crown jewel of Philadelphia city courses for nearly 50 years before falling on hard times, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For years now, the low-lying holes near the creek from which the course takes its name have been areas of constant flooding when it rains, the Inquirer reported. Trees and waste areas have become overgrown, and a city that had more pressing needs offered only minimal maintenance to keep the course in operation,

But now the persistent concern to restore 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, the Inquirer reported. A unanimous vote by the Philadelphia City Council in June awarded the course for $1 in rent to the nonprofit Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, an organization headed by commercial real estate broker Chirs Lange, for the purpose of restoring, maintaining and operating the facility.

It won’t be cheap, reported the Inquirer. 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 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 the Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr, Pa. “Then we’ll be giving back to the community in a lot of really good ways, through The First Tee [and] other golf and education programs, [to provide] scholarship opportunities for kids and local high school golf teams.”

Opened in 1916, Cobbs Creek once was one of the finest public courses in the United States, reported the Inquirer. 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.

The vision for the restored Cobbs Creek is to now create a facility that rivals the top public courses in other major cities, such as Torrey Pines in San Diego and Harding Park in San Francisco. People such as Lange, along with Mike Cirba and Joe Bausch, two of the originators of the Friends of Cobbs Creek, which preceded the foundation, are excited by that vision, the Inquirer reported.

“They really understand the significance and the history,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia’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, Pa., requested and received aerial photographs of the course from the Hagley Museum’s Dallin Collection, the Inquirer reported. Writing about his findings, he attracted the attention of others who thought the original routing could be restored.

Bausch, a chemistry professor at Villanova University, 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 in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, Pa., which opened in 1912, reported the Inquirer.

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 that required the removal of the 13th hole and the rerouting of holes around it, the Inquirer reported.

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, reported the Inquirer.

Enter Jim Wagner, the design partner of noted Malvern, Pa. 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, the Inquirer reported. He also added a plan for a championship course in anticipation of the foundation’s someday fulfilling a goal of bringing a PGA Tour event to Cobbs Creek.

“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. “We have to preserve what we can with the original golf course. That was almost a no-brainer.”

Perhaps the largest obstacle to the course reconstruction is flooding, the Inquirer reported, especially at the third, fourth and fifth holes, which Wagner called “the essence of the golf course.” LandStudies, an engineering company based in Lititz, Pa. that has worked at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa. 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, reported the Inquirer.

“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 of the project 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, the Inquirer reported.

“We could have our learning center there,” said William Hyndman V, Executive Director of The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia. “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.”

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