Philadelphia’s historic Cobbs Creek Golf Course will close for a few years to undergo a $20 million renovation aimed at restoring it to its former glory as one of the country’s most well-regarded public courses.
Cobbs Creek will close to the public Oct. 31, when the city’s contract with its managing company, Billy Casper Golf, ends. The renovations will start this spring, and the course is expected to reopen in June 2023, a representative from Philadelphia Parks and Recreation said.
The course had fallen into disrepair over the years. Dying trees litter the greens, and the creek that runs through the course floods often, causing erosion, damaging holes, and spreading debris after rainstorms. In 2016, the course’s clubhouse burned down and was replaced with two double-wide trailers.
The renovations, which will be funded by the nonprofit Cobbs Creek Restoration & Community Foundation, aim to replace the clubhouse, fix the floodplains, and create wetlands around the creek to prevent flooding, according to Chris Maguire, who chairs the foundation’s board of directors. The revamp will also add an educational program for young golfers.
But for Philadelphians who love the public course’s tight-knit community, affordability, and convenient location, the renovation is a double-edged sword.
“It is kind of a rarity to have a challenging public golf course like [Cobbs Creek] that is close enough to the city to be able to be used by people in Philadelphia,” said Paul Nowyj, who has been playing there for five years and made friends with many of the older players.
Longtime players worry that the community — especially retirees who visit the course daily — will have trouble playing together in the close groups to which they are accustomed if the course closes for three years.
“What’s going to happen is the people that are playing golf there are not going to be able to play golf there anymore, and they’re going to scatter like the wind to other places,” said Paul Cornely, who’s been playing at the course for 49 years. “And once the place reopens, they’re not going to come back because they’re going to become set in their ways at a new location.”
Ron Bond, who has been playing at Cobbs Creek for 16 years, is concerned that the course may become less affordable after the renovations.
“This is about coming out, putting in 2½ hours playing golf, and at a fee you can afford,” he said.
Cobbs Creek costs around $1,300 for a yearlong membership, which pales in comparison with the fees of private golf courses, which can run upwards of $10,000. Rates at other public courses in Philadelphia are similar, though those courses are smaller, not the championship size or level of Cobbs Creek.
Maguire said that the renovations will not drastically raise the course’s price.
“We have no intention of pricing ourselves out of the people that utilize the golf course now,” he said. “We’re not looking to change the dynamic of who plays at this golf course." He said it’s too early to say what post-renovation prices for players might be.
The club has about 150 members, and sees 400 to 500 players per week, said Jen Carmichael, who has worked at the course for 11 years.
Cobbs Creek opened in 1916 and was designed by the legendary architect Hugh Wilson. Many golf legends have played at the championship course, including Arnold Palmer, Charlie Sifford, and Howard Wheeler. Cobbs Creek is also known for its racial inclusion, and Sifford, the first Black person to win a Professional Golfers Association Tour event, cites it as his home course.
President Donald Trump has said he learned to play golf at Cobbs Creek while studying at the University of Pennsylvania.
“[It was] a public course, a rough course, no grass on the tees, no nothing, but it was good, and great people,” Trump told Golf Digest in 2014. “All hustlers out there. I mean, more hustlers than any place I’ve seen to this day.”
To date, the foundation has raised $12 million of the $20 million it needs to finish the renovations. Maguire said the coronavirus has made applying for federal, state, and local grants more difficult, but the foundation is continuing its fund-raising efforts.
Maguire stressed that these renovations are not just about fixing the course, but preserving history.
“It’s a restoration of the golf course, but it’s also about restoring a landmark,” he said. “It’s part of what we’re trying to do as citizens of Philadelphia — trying to take something that could be turning into a liability and turning it back into an asset.”