The Dawn of Greatness
Golf first took hold in the United States in the late 1800s, and by the turn of the 20th century the material wealth and city pollution provided by the Industrial Revolution created a sudden need for recreational pastimes in the great outdoors. This led to rapid growth in the game; although most of the first courses built in this country were for private clubs, the appeal was so widespread that by the 1890s both New York City and Boston opened municipally-funded “public” golf courses, followed soon by Chicago, Pittsburgh, and most other major cities.
Initial efforts as early as 1895 to provide public golf in Philadelphia were wholly unsuccessful; although the game continued to grow rapidly in the region during the next decade. Indeed, a young Philadelphia golf professional named John McDermott was the first American to win the United States Open when he accomplished this feat in 1911 and repeating in 1912. The following year an American amateur of limited means named Francis Ouimet won the same title, accelerating the popularization of the game with the American public.
During those formative years, golf legends like A.W. Tillinghast wrote passionate newspaper articles in the Philadelphia papers, pleading with the city fathers to fill an obvious need. Part of their reason was self-serving; golfers from the City of Brotherly Love were being consistently and badly beaten in competitions against other major cities and most experts agreed the city lacked championship level golf courses where local golfers could effectively develop their skills. Others such as Robert Lesley, Hugh Wilson of Merion and Ab Smith of Huntingdon Valley, pointed out that the lack of a public courses in the city meant that many potential Philadelphia golfers simply didn’t have the opportunity to play the game.
This need for excellent, challenging golf courses in the Philadelphia region led to the creation of the Hugh Wilson-designed Merion East course in 1912, followed a year later by George Crump’s astounding creation at Pine Valley, generally regarded as the greatest golf course in the world. Still, these great private courses did not address the pent-up demand for a public facility, which was now reaching a boiling point.
With the game rapidly growing, the Golf Association of Philadelphia, City Council and the Mayor’s office, looked to create a suitable public course for the citizens of Philadelphia and acquired an old parcel of farmland along Cobbs Creek in West Philadelphia. These civic leaders turned to Hugh Wilson in 1913 for his counsel:
“I am in receipt of your query as to what is the matter with Philadelphia Golf,” Wilson said.
“My thought in the matter is that it is due to three causes:
Lack of encouragement to the younger players.
Lack of public courses.
Lack of tournaments which will bring good out-of-town players to Philadelphia.”
In 1913, Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP) President Robert Lesley appointed a committee of expert golfers that included Hugh Wilson, George Crump, and Ab Smith to work with city officials to build the golf course. Multiple designs were drawn and by January 1915 the city approved the final design and work commenced.
As if to make all those prior years of frustration worth the wait, from inception the plans for Cobb’s Creek were boldly ambitious and it was announced by Lesley that it would be a, “public golf course second to none in the country and equal to any in the world.” Designed and built by the best and brightest golf “experts” in the Philadelphia region, it opened in May 1916 as an architectural tour de force.
Upon opening, Cobb’s Creek Golf Course was universally hailed, and provided an accessible recreational asset for golfers of all races, creeds, and genders. It was soon generally acknowledged as the best public course in the country and the New York press wrote laudatory articles under headlines such as “Philadelphia Golfers Have Gem in Their New Public Links,” using terms like “scenically captivating,” “elegant,” and “the creek a great hazard feature.”
Cobb’s Creek would provide thousands of residents with access to the great game, and be another jewel in the crown of Fairmount Park. It would host the PGA Tour and the Daily News Open. Arnold Palmer, Gene Sarazen, and Bob Hope would all come to know and admire Cobbs Creek. The United Golfer’s Association (UGA) would also host their National Championships here, and early African American Golf heroes would win and lead a new generation into the game including Howard Wheeler, former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, and Charlie Sifford. Sifford, a Philadelphia resident and Cobbs Creek regular, would go on to become the first African American to play and win on the PGA Tour.
The fortunes of Cobbs Creek Golf Course took a turn for the worse during the 1950s as 15% of the property was annexed by a military entity for an anti-aircraft battery during the early years of the Cold War. This loss of acreage created a need to significantly re-route the golf course, adversely affecting a third of the holes, most of them among the most renowned and dramatic on the golf course.
Coming at a time when golf was beginning to boom in post WWII America and suburban flight was dramatically changing city priorities, this property loss sadly began a long, slow decline in the conditions, popularity, economic viability, and reputation of the golf course. The creek was disrupted and began to overflow. Our early civic leaders’ vision was misplaced and our pioneering architects’ great work, tainted.
As such, most of the past sixty years have not been kind to Cobbs Creek Golf Course. Seemingly lost at times in a city struggling financially and focused on more pressing priorities, Cobb’s Creek today still stands proud in its glorious history, while offering a beautiful and palpable glimpse of its former greatness and current potential.
A New Hope
A group of committed individuals established a non-profit, the Cobbs Creek Restoration and Community Foundation, who sought to improve the state of the golf course, the creek and implement youth programming.
The Cobbs Creek Project was officially born and quickly became a multi-faceted, public private initiative, to restore and maintain a public park with substantial environmental implications, significant economic impact, and at its core, a comprehensive education program known as “Course to Greatness,” giving youth access to work, social collaboration, scholarships, mentoring, tutoring and internships with corporate partners. By leveraging private development in partnership with city and state governments, in collaboration with corporations and the university community, Course to Greatness can become a potential platform for success.