By Ron Whitten
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.
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.