Starting at Merion Golf Club, the past and future U.S. Open site and the most historic and famous of all Philadelphia-area golf clubs, it wouldn’t take you long to find another site of Philly golf history. But it might take your imagination.
In fact, you could take a short walk from Merion’s 12th green, board a train and take a 12-minute trip along the Cobbs Creek, under City Avenue, the border between the suburbs and the city, to the site of the waterway’s namesake golf course.
As for your imagination? You might need that because Cobbs Creek Golf Course doesn’t look like much of a golf course these days.
You can see the clearings of trees, the outlines of greens and fairways, the elevated tees. One flag stick even remains standing on a clover-covered green that used to sit adjacent to the clubhouse. Now? Just an old house and a temporary construction office remain.
To the untrained eye, it would be easy to mistake the 340-acre sprawling property for a lightly maintained park. Yet it’s here in the shadow of the Philadelphia skyline, a city in which he has only teed it up competitively a handful of times, that Tiger Woods is building just the second TGR Learning Lab and expanding his TGR Foundation’s reach.
In Philadelphia, the private clubs rule. Blue-blood elite private clubs like major championship hosts Merion, Aronomink, Philadelphia Country Club and Philadelphia Cricket Club dot the surrounding suburbs. Even 1958 PGA Championship host Llanarch sits less than three miles away from Cobbs Creek.
But championship-level public courses? Those are few and far between. That’s what made Cobbs an outlier.
Officially, Hugh Wilson, designer of Merion’s fabled East Course, is credited with the design of Cobbs Creek’s Olde Course, which opened for play in 1916. But really, all six of the legandary “Philadelphia School” of golf course architecture — A.W. Tillinghast, George C. Thomas, Jr., William Flynn, George Crump, and William Fownes — contributed to the layout.
When it opened, it was one of the few courses that welcomed all comers, regardless of background or gender. And the course peaked in the 1950s when, for two years, it hosted the PGA Tour’s Philadelphia Daily News Open. Sifford and some of the area’s other top black golfers were even able to play in those events, despite the Tour’s existing Caucasians-only clause.
But then, as Cobbs Creek Foundation Chief Operating Officer Enrique Hervada explained, the course fell from glory.
“They had a Tour event here and then after that it sort of went into a slow decline, like a lot of municipal golf courses that are this old,” Hervada said. “The city owned it. It was run by different management companies over the years. Some would put money into it, most wouldn’t put any money into it. They never took down any trees and never did the basic maintenance that you need to do to maintain a golf course.”
People who played the golf course from the 80s up until recent times could tell it had “good bones” but the conditioning wasn’t there.
“You could barely get a tee in the ground,” Hervada said.
The Charlie Sifford connection
With Woods making so few appearances in Philadelphia over the years, you’d wonder what the connection between the 15-time major winner and the “City of Brotherly Love” is.
It’s really not that much of a stretch. Cobbs Creek was where Charlie Sifford learned to play golf after moving from North Carolina to Philadelphia in 1939.
Twenty-two years later, Sifford became the first black golfer ever to gain membership to the PGA Tour in 1961. He later became the first black golfer to win on the PGA Tour in 1967.
Woods has called Sifford his hero and his TGR Foundation’s tournament, the Genesis Invitational, awards the Charlies Sifford Memorial Exemption to players who represent the advancement of diversity in golf.
Without Cobbs Creek, Sifford may have never discovered his love for the game.
The Cobbs Creek Foundation and TGR
Beginning in the early 2010s, whispers began for the course to be restored to its Golden-Age glory. They only grew louder when the clubhouse was lost to a fire in 2016 and the city’s lease to a private contractor to run the golf course ended in 2019, shuttering the track. The course was reclaimed by nature and even became a site for illegal dumping.
Not long after, the non-profit Cobbs Creek Foundation was formed. The group went to the City of Philadelphia and requested a new lease to restore and operate the golf course. They were granted a 70-year lease in 2022 with two 30-year options.
The plan starts with a full restoration of the creek in the area first to help mitigate historic flooding issues on the property, which Hervada says is at one of the lowest points in West Philadelphia.
Then construction can begin on the restoration of the 18-hole Olde course and the 9-hole Karakung course led by Philadelphia residents and esteemed architects Gil Hanse and Jim Wagner. There will also be a multi-level driving range and educational center.
The Cobbs Creek Foundation is raising around $100 million for the project through individual donors and public funds.
In March, it was officially announced the Cobbs Creek Foundation and TGR Foundation were partnering to build just the second TGR Learning Lab at the site. TGR Design will also create a short course next to the learning lab, similar to Pebble Beach’s The Hay.
“I’m excited to work with the Cobbs Creek Foundation and the Philadelphia community on this special project that combines my passions, golf and supporting youth through education,” Woods said in the announcement. “Through the campus, we will provide meaningful education opportunities for local youth while expanding access to the game I love.”
Hervada said the Cobbs Creek Foundation was begining to think about what programs they wanted to have at they educational center when talks started with TGR.
“We reached out to the TGR Foundation and it turns out that they were interested in expanding and they were interested in the Northeast and the Charlie Sifford connection was just really icing on the cake,” he said. “They really wanted to be in an urban environment, access to a golf course, in a good location in the Northeast and we sort of checked the boxes for them.”
The hope is for the driving range, short course and TGR Learning Lab to be completed and opened in the fall of 2024, with the restoration of the 27-holes coming in 2025 or 2026, Hervada said.
There are even dreams of an 18-hole composite course attracting the PGA Tour to the facility once again.
“There are a lot of goals that we need to hit before we talk about a PGA Tour event. But the golf course has been designed to host a PGA Tour event,” Hervada said. “I think the city of Philadelphia has crazy golf fans and would be very supportive if we had a regular PGA Tour stop here.”
It hasn’t yet been determined what the greens fees will be at the courses, but Hervada stressed that it will be affordable to everyone, just like it always has been. Programing for children who are selected to be a part of the TGR Foundation will be completely free. Hervada also said there’s hope for the First Tee of Greater Philadelphia — of which this writer is a proud alumnus — to have a presence at the facility.
“This is a public golf course. So everyone is welcome,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything to be a member. Just come up and you can play.”