For a time last fall, there was some enthusiasm for a potential rebuild or redesign of Delaware Park Meadows. Who knows the current status of the pipe dream? For now, let’s take a look at some fellows in Philadelphia, interested in a restoration of a classic golf course of their own, who are going about it in the proper way. Cobb’s Creek was designed by Hugh Wilson, a talented architect who passed too soon from this world. Wilson has two other courses to his credit, the east and west courses at Merion. The east was the site of the 2013 US Open, won by Justin Rose. Wilson was also involved in the design of Pine Valley, across the state line in New Jersey. Not a bad set of courses to have on one’s resume. This alone makes the Cobb’s Creek course worthy of revitalization. No shotgun wedding here, old-fashioned hard work and diligent research. Joe Bausch and Mike Cirba, of the Cobb’s Creek project, answer a few questions for us.
1. Please introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about your history with golf.
BAUSCH: I’ve been playing golf since I was about 10 years old (now 53 years young). I did not become interested in the history of golf until becoming part of GolfClubAtlas.com. That is where I met Mike and many other golfers from the Delaware Valley. I discovered Cobb’s Creek golf course as it was on my way to work as I drove to Villanova University from my comfy apartment in West Philadelphia. When the topic of the early history of Cobb’s Creek came up, I proceeded to the library at Villanova and starting digging!
CIRBA: I missed another year of pitching Little League by 8 days and I was acquiring bench splinters in my behind as a 12 year old playing Teen ball against kids who were shaving. Some older friends of mine went to play golf and I asked why they would want to play “an old man’s sport”. I knew nothing about the game and one of them showed me the map of the course on the scorecard, saying “you have to hit over a pond here”, or “this hole goes around the woods”, etc. I was intrigued, so the next time they went I joined them at the nine-hole, 2200 yard, converted ramshackle farm course. By the time I stepped on the first green I was amazed that it was grass, and 11 shots after teeing off I was immediately hooked.
The course, Scott View Golf Course in Montdale, PA (today called Scott Greens and thankfully still in existence), cost all of $35 for an unlimited play annual membership. We were a lower middle income family so that was the only way we could afford to play. My dad would drop us off before work and come pick us up on his way home. One day he grabbed one of my left-handed rental clubs and got hooked himself, leading to something we could do together often over the last 40 years of his life.
Over the years it’s fair to say that golf saved my life, simply by giving me a productive outlet for youthful energies which I was only too willing too often to spend on various vices. By the time I played my second course, another converted farm 9-hole affair, I was struck by the fact that every hole on the course was completely different from the first course I played. In retrospect, that should have been obvious, but it was somewhat startling and intriguing to me that the playing fields of the sport, unlike other games, offered almost infinite varieties of settings and possibilities.
It became a passion of mine to play different golf courses and in October of 2015 I went abroad to play Muirfield in Scotland for my 1000th course. The reasons for that particular course were sentimental, based on my history with my dad.
2. The Philadelphia area has as complete a collection of classic golf courses as any place in the world. How did you each come to know and appreciate great golf course architecture?
BAUSCH: My interest in architecture was fueled by a visit probably 15 years ago to an early Gil Hanse design in the Philly suburbs known as Inniscrone. It was very bold and opened my eyes to architecture.
CIRBA: In 1971, while sitting in the Scott View clubhouse in Northeastern PA I picked up a Sports Illustrated magazine with a preview of the coming US Open at Merion and there was a story titled “The Ghosts of Merion” which juxtaposed modern color photos of various holes with sepia or black and white images of the men who made various histories, for better or worse, on various holes. I was fascinated and Merion became an instant sentimental favorite to me.
When I moved to the Philadelphia region in my mid-20s I would drive around the course, thrilled to simply have a glimpse at the holes. I’m not sure I really appreciated great architecture at the time and had probably what I’ll call a “tough is good” mentality. It was only later that I received a real education in Golf Course Architecture through participation on various golf architecture related websites like golfclubatlas.com
over the past 20 or so years, as well as having the opportunity to see and play many of the best courses in the country and world.
3. You are principles in the effort to restore the Cobb’s Creek golf course. Tell us a bit about the course and its history.
Bausch: Many people have been involved in finding facts about Cobb’s Creek, but I guess I’ve been the leader in that regard. Mike can better amplify this topic as he wrote “The Tome” as we call it!
CIRBA: Man, where to start. Joe Bausch and I compiled a 380-page history book of the place and what we learned (mostly through what Joe uncovered) blew us away in many respects. Let me try to hit the high notes;
Cobb’s Creek GC was created by the same men who created Merion and Pine Valley and for the same purpose; to create a championship level course that would foster the development of great golfers and champions in the Philadelphia region, who were suffering in inter-city competitions with NY, Boston, and Chicago. How many courses can say that Hugh Wilson and George Crump (with others) both were involved in finding the property and then designing the course? It was to be the public course version for “men of slender purses” as Tillinghast termed it, of what a real championship golf course entailed, and it was.
Cobb’s Creek GC hosted the 1928 US Publinks and the Medalist after 36 holes was 8 over par.
From its inception, Cobb’s Creek was unlike almost every other public course in the country in that it had no barriers to entry based on race, gender, religion, or any other limiting factor. As such, it’s where African American pioneer Charlie Sifford developed his game. In fact, last year Cobb’s Creek GC was inducted in the African American Golfer’s Hall of Fame for it’s contributions to minority golf over the past century.
The original routing of Cobb’s Creek was pure genius. Unfortunately, in the mid-50s during the Cold War an air defense base was moved to the site, compromising 15% of the acreage and leading to the forced re-routing of 6 holes, arguably eliminating some of the best on the course including the island-green par three 12th from a hilltop setting. Fortunately, through our research we’ve been able to determine that the original course is recoverable.
4. Moving on from that, how did the restoration project come about and why did you decide to involve yourselves?
BAUSCH: Again Mike is best to expound on this topic. But I would like to add that there have been previous attempts to accomplish a restoration of the course (including one involving Greg Norman!). Our project IMHO has gained the most traction and notoriety and I believe will eventually happen.
CIRBA: Some years back I received the book “The Architects of Golf” as a Christmas gift. I became fascinated by the authors attempts to catalog the architectural histories of not only the Augusta Nationals and the NGLA’s but by every course great and small, including many I had played. That led me to attempts to research design origins of those courses I’d played that weren’t listed in the book, mostly through hand mailed letters but also through searching of old newspapers on microfiche in libraries and historical societies.
The case of Cobb’s Creek was perplexing. For many years lore had it that Hugh Wilson was involved but I’d never seen any direct evidence. Even the account written by the late, great Jim Finegan didn’t seem to make a lot of sense based on what I knew. Some said the course used to include holes where apartments were today, some said holes ran thru the driving range, others said holes on the adjoining Karakung course were in play. So back in August of 2007 I sent an email query to the Hagley Museum of Wilmington Delaware, knowing that they had a fairly extensive collection of vintage aerial photos from the Philadelphia region, asking if they had anything on Cobb’s Creek.
Probably six weeks past and I was about to give up when one day in my email I received 8 aerial photo attachments that showed the golf course from between 1928 and 1939. I immediately started a thread on GolfClubAtlas to the effect of “I have these photos and I believe the course is restorable but I can’t exactly figure out the exact routing”.
Well, at its best that community is terrific for those type of collaborative endeavors. By the time the first page was complete I had folks like Joe Bausch, and Geoff Walsh, and Steve Shaffer, and Wayne Morrison and others chiming in, including the person who was the course manager at the time who had spoken to some of the old timers who recalled the original course.
Joe Bausch took it upon himself with the research library at Villanova to dig deeper and soon he dug up old articles from various news sources that proved not only the involvement of Hugh Wilson, but also George Crump, Ab Smith (first Philly AM Champion), Frank Meehan, George Klauder, William Flynn, Dr. Simon Carr, and even an assist from Walter Travis. The Captain George Thomas (of Riviera and LACC fame) mentioned in his book that he learned a lot from Wilson at among other places, Cobb’s Creek.
The thread went into tens of pages over several months and through sportswriter Joe Logan we being young and naïve soon found ourselves down at Philadelphia City Hall asking about the possibility of the course being restored. When we didn’t receive a “no” response, we went full bore forward and somehow almost ten years have passed.
That meeting turned into a full page Sunday Sports “Philadelphia Inquirer ” story that launched our little group. We had a meeting at Cobb’s Creek and afterwards met with architect Ron Prichard who told us armchair architectural aficionados, “It’s a good thing you guys are going to see how things happen in the real world.” He was prescient in his cautionary words, that’s for certain, and I’m sure he still chuckles about that.
Hugh Wilson once said in talking about designing and building Merion something like, “If we knew then what we now know we didn’t know, I don’t think we ever would have gotten into this.” I know how he felt and we haven’t even broken ground yet.
5. How long has the restoration been underway and what delightful surprises revealed themselves to you over this trajectory?
BAUSCH: Very early on the thoughts of doing a restoration a gathering of like-minded individuals took place at a local watering hole after tramping around the grounds at Cobb’s Creek on a cold day. Local architect Ron Prichard said something like this to us: “Be prepared for all kinds of ups and downs”. So partly because of his statement, I’ve tried to take a even-keel approach.
Almost ten years have passed and although we have made substantial significant progress in a series of fits and starts across two Mayoral administrations, we aren’t quite to the finish line yet, but remain hopeful. We were fortunate that architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner were very interested in helping and they developed an extensively detailed, wonderfully imaginative restoration plan that takes into account both courses on the property. I knew Gil had previously rebuilt two greens by hand after they had been damaged in flooding pro bono, simply because he felt it was the right thing to do, so all along I believed he deserved first dibs on the project.
I remember well Geoff Walsh and I first walking Jim Wagner around the property and I know Jim is frank enough to tell us we were insane if he didn’t see the potential. When we were walking the original 6th hole Jim made an analogy to the 18th hole at Riviera and that was the first time I thought maybe we weren’t crazy after. Later Gil came and did the tour and to see the looks of excitement on his face at various stages of the walk-around I recognized that we were/are in good hands.
6.Have there been any missteps along the way, or tasks that you wish you might have done differently?
BAUSCH: When the project is complete, maybe we can have Part 2 of this interview!
CIRBA: Oh lord, we were so young and naïve back then. I don’t know if I’d call them missteps but lets say we’ve had many setback and challenges along the way, some of which we’re still trying to overcome today as negotiations continue with the city.
I will say that we also had many unexpected positive surprises, such as the help of prominent local golfers like Chris Lange who played in the US Senior Open, and John Burnes, who almost single-handedly had Johnny McDermott honored with a historical marker at the site of the original Aronimink course in Philadelphia. Those fellows run in some social and political circles well beyond public course golfers like me and Joe Bausch, and there is no way that the project would have come this far without their continued and direct support and involvement on every level.
7. How much is left to do and what do you anticipate will be the place/role of the restored Cobb’s Creek course?
BAUSCH: We both hope this project will polish up this jewel of the city of Philadelphia and that anyone interested in learning golf or playing a fantastic golden-age golf course will enjoy.
CIRBA: In a perfect scenario the agreement with the city for a long-term lease with our non-profit foundation will be concluded in the next few months. That will lead to a period of the better part of a year spent in planning and permitting prior to shovels in the ground in the fall of 2018.
I will leave it to others to judge the quality of the course once restored, but all of us involved with the project are extremely excited at the possibilities.
For every day play, the original Hugh Wilson and friends course will be restored but Gil and Jim also created the possibility of a “Composite Course” that would have the bandwidth and challenge necessary to host major events, including USGA and PGA tour events if desired. Interestingly, we’ve learned that those things are more a matter of having space for the logistics as much if not more than quality architecture, or playing difficulty of the course. We are comfortable that the plan has all of the above.
8. What is the state of your respective golf games and what impact on your own golf has your familiarity with golf course architecture had?
BAUSCH: I’m playing to vanity 10 these days. I’m not sure knowing a good amount of golf course architecture has made me a better player, but I know it has increased my enjoyment of the game.
CIRBA: At times back in my 20s and 30s I was a pretty low handicapper who was very competitive but also was hot-tempered and didn’t enjoy myself if I wasn’t playing well. At some point I realized that no one was ever going to pay me to play the game and I now play mostly to see and engage with the beauty of various natural settings and I still get a particular thrill playing a new course for the first time. These days, current HCP index is 9.3, and rising but hoping, as we all do, to bring it back down a bit this year.
Simply put, the appreciation I’ve learned for golf course architecture combined with the excitement of seeing any new course for the first time means that golf is still saving my life all these years later.
9. What question haven’t we asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, and thank you for your time.
Q. How did the grandson of a man who died in the mines in his 20s and the son of a man who worked in a book warehouse for 40 years end up playing a rich man’s game and over 1000 courses?
CIRBA: I haven’t the foggiest idea, but somewhere along the way I must have spent a fortune to attain an even greater one of friends, memories, courses, and continued enthusiasm for the future as I approach age 59. I also have to thank my wife for her understanding and support for my other passionate obsession.