While Philadelphia’s prestigious private clubs have a long history as fitting venues for important golf championships, few are aware of the role of municipal Cobb’s Creek in hosting
prestigious national tournaments throughout its earliest decades. Opening in 1916, by 1928 Cobb’s Creek hosted the best public course players across the country in the United States
Public Links championship. The testing course more than held its own with a 36-hole best medal score of ten-over par 152, with only eight of the contestants able to break 160, and
scores of 165 reaching the match-play portion that was eventually won by repeat champion Carl Kauffmann of Pittsburgh.
Befitting its status as a multiracial recreational melting pot in the city of Brotherly Love, Cobb’s also hosted the “National Negro Open” in both 1936 and 1947. As African-American golfers were not permitted to play in regular tour events during this time of national segregation, they played under tournaments sanctioned by their own group of clubs who formed the UGA, or United Golfers Association. Sadly, such exclusionary practices by the PGA of America continued until the 1960’s. The 1936 National Negro Open at Cobb’s Creek was won by golf pioneer John Brooks Dendy, who learned the game with a club he fashioned himself. In 1947, local legend Howard Wheeler won the title, outlasting Charlie Sifford, who later became the first African-American golfer to win on the PGA tour. Heavyweight champion (and avid golfer) Joe Louis also participated and led the amateur portion of the event after the first round with a 74.
In the early 1950s the layout of the course at Cobb’s Creek was significantly altered as a large portion of the property was utilized by the US Army to create an anti-aircraft missile base. Even so, the national spotlight was again cast on Cobb’s Creek in the form of two PGA Tour events, the 1955 and 1956 Philadelphia Daily News Opens. The re-routed course (still in use today) played 6,243 yards to an unusual par of 68, and two of the final three holes were par threes. The reporters of the time weren’t quite sure what to make of the difficult, yet strangely unorthodox layout, and use terms like “revamped”, and “apologetic par 68”, while conceding that it was both lovely and picturesque.
Against such a target number, Cobb’s was quite the challenge. Arnold Palmer, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, started the 1955 tournament with an inglorious 78, and the winning 72-hole total of 273 was one over par. Ted Kroll prevailed in a playoff with Doug Ford, beating other luminaries such as Tommy Bolt, Miller Barber, Gardner Dickinson, George Fazio, and Marty Furgol, all of whom were in contention the final day,
In 1956, before a crowd of 17,000 spectators, another playoff determined the winner as Dick Mayer bested Bud Holscher, the only two men under par for the tournament at 3-under 269. Some other top names included Arnold Palmer, who earned $1000 for his 273. Gardner Dickinson, Tommy Bolt, and Fred Hawkins finished at even par. At 274 was Billy Casper, and at 276 the players included Ted Kroll, Charlie Sifford, Gay Brewer, Doug Ford, and Billy Maxwell. Cary Middlecoff, having won the U.S. Open the week prior, finished well back at 281. The following year, Dick Mayer would win the U.S. Open himself at Inverness.
Sadly, the 1950s tournaments were the last hurrah for Cobb’s Creek on a national stage. It is hoped that recent restoration initiatives may eventually be instrumental in bringing the course back to its former stature and glory, and perhaps once again this public gem will be seen as a worthy setting for top competitive events.