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Joe Coble Wins APL at Community
- By Jeff Gilbert, Contributing Writer to Miami Valley Golf
- Editor’s note: The third U.S. Amateur Public Links championship was held in Dayton in late June of 1924. The tournament was discontinued after 2014. The following story is a compilation of facts and observations from the 1924 tournament taken from newspaper reports and other sources. Italicized portions are taken directly from newspapers. 

To View Images from the Championship

APL_100_Years_ago- One hundred years ago, Joe Coble tamed the terrain at venerable Community Golf Course in the most serious way. “Silent Joe’s” demeanor failed to endear him to the galleries of up to 1,500 people who walked the Hills course with him through 36 holes of qualifying and five rounds of match play.

The Daytonians who gathered for free to watch their first national golf tournament, the third annual National Public Links Championship, gravitated toward other, more appealing golfers to cheer for.

Because in this primeval era of golf, in this first everyman national tournament, golf fans wanted a hero of the people. They flocked toward golfers who reminded them of themselves, wanting to be aligned with the first to rise from the unheralded ranks.

Coble’s stoicism didn’t compare to the youthful exuberance, the big smiles, the nods to the crowd of many others in the field.

“From the time he teed off in the first qualifying round Tuesday until the final putt on the seventeenth green, he never smiled, never spoke, but played each shot with a look of stern determination on his face.”

If the galleries had known Coble’s up-from-his-bootstraps story in the hard city of Philadelphia, they might have replaced their indifference with fondness. Instead, it wasn’t until he defeated Henry Decker of Kansas City 2 and 1 in the 36-hole match play final that Coble, the new champion of municipal golfers, was celebrated.

“The first man to congratulate Coble – the man who lifted Coble to his shoulders after the final putt had been sunk and who carried the new champion to the clubhouse, was Dick Walsh, who this year, failed to qualify. The son of Italy – the Gene Sarazen of public links golf – had won a national golfing crown.”

In 1923, Coble reached the semifinals but lost 2-up to eventual champion Walsh at East Potomac Park in Washington, D.C. But golfers from such courses as Community and Coble’s own, and now historic, Cobbs Creek in Philly, had little name recognition. Pros like Sarazen and Walter Hagen came up through the country club circuit and were the stars of the day.

Coble’s back story is the type the Golf Channel would love to tell today. The TV commentary, the newspaper columns and social media would be full of Joe Coble’s rise to greatness.

Sarazen was born in Harrison, New York, in 1902 as the son of a Sicilian carpenter. He won the first of two U.S. Opens in 1922 at the age of 20. Coble was born in Naples, Italy, and came to the U.S. as a 7-year-old in 1905, if the second-hand report is correct that he was 26 when he won in Dayton.

Coble’s introduction and love affair with golf began in 1910 as a caddy at the famed Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey. After three years of observation, Coble began to teach himself to play. When Jerry Travers won the 1915 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Coble was his caddy. Coble served two years in the Army during World War I. He returned and moved to Philadelphia in 1919 and began playing at three-year-old Cobbs Creek, the only public course in the city, because he had heard great things about the place.

Coble took a job as a waiter in an all-night restaurant. When his shift ended, he slept for three hours, then was one of the first to tee off every morning at Cobbs.

“Here is a man who must make sacrifices to play the game he loves, for the new champion was not one of the fortunate ones born with a silver spoon between his lips. On the contrary, Coble works hard for a living – and he works all night. For Coble’s golf was learned in the gray of the mornings, when the dew was wet upon the grass tips and the sun but a faint promise in the eastern sky.

“Experience was his instructor, and the price of instruction anything but cheap, bought with stolen hours from rest and unending persevering in the face of obstacles that would have caused most men to give the game up. But Coble only worked the harder and it was not all work, that practice at a sport which he loved even better than his sleep.

“There were moments in those early mornings when the feel of a well directed drive or a clearly struck mashie shot thrilled the champion to be as nothing else could; moments when the game paid him back for all he gave up for it.”

Coble won a qualifying tournament in Philly and many pooled funds to send him to Dayton to play at Community and stay at the Miami Hotel at the corner of Second and Ludlow. His 36-hole qualifying score of 163 was in the top 32 but 13 shots off the winning pace set by Earl McAleer of Washington, D.C., and nothing so special as to predict his next few days.

Coble trailed in each match-play round. In the semifinals, the gallery had already found a favorite in 18-year-old Frank Dolp of Portland, Oregon. And “the experts,” whoever they were, predicted Dolp, who qualified at 154, would be champion.

But Coble eventually gained control against Dolp, the future two-time Western Amateur champion, for a 6 and 5 victory, doing himself no favors with the fans. Coble’s foe in the final was Decker of Kansas City. Unlike Coble, Decker laughed, smiled and made friends with onlookers.

“The gallery was pinning its hopes on Decker, but the swarthy Pennsylvanian is one of the ablest match players in the game, and the ease with which he upset Dolp made him the favorite with those who are not swayed by sentiment.”

Coble and Decker started their first 18 on Saturday in driving rain. Decker led early, but Coble made a 15-foot putt on 18 (Decker missed from under 4 feet) and was 3 up going into the second 18. Coble won the 19th hole, but Decker battled back to square the match on the 31st hole.

Coble regained the lead on the par-5 14th with a birdie. They halved 15 when Coble struck a remarkable sand shot and holed a 15-foot putt. Coble won 16 on a 20-foot birdie putt, then halved 17 to win the gold medal 2 and 1 and send the three-foot tall traveling cup back to Cobbs Creek.

“On the seventeenth green, however, after he sunk a long putt and won the coveted championship, that grim and stern look slowly faded and a wide smile, a smile which took in everybody, took its place, and immediately the gallery became his friend and their idol and he was carried from the course on the shoulders of admirers amid thundering cheers.”

The gallery’s treatment of Coble before his victory was celebrated, however, was not forgotten.

“Ignoring the unwritten rules of golf, relative to silence while the contestants are putting or teeing off, many men in the crowd talked while Coble was in a pinch. They applauded every shot of Decker’s but only faint and apparently forced applause was accorded Coble.”

Coble’s victory launched him out of the late-night restaurant hours and into a career in golf. Within the year he began to play in pro tournaments and qualified for three PGA Championships. He worked as an assistant pro at Cobbs Creek, the course that produced the first black PGA Tour player Charlie Sifford. Coble went on to serve as head pro at two other clubs.

Cobbs Creek, inducted into the National Black Golf Hall of Fame in 2021, is closed for $100 million of renovations and will reopen in 2026 as close to its original state as possible.

But golf is nothing like it was 100 years ago.

“This individual of Italian extraction didn’t look like a golfer and didn’t act like one. He is a waiter in a Philadelphia restaurant and his profession gives him little time for improvement of his game. His winning of this national title shows the scope and democracy of the sport, which was considered a few years ago as only a pastime for millionaires and the idle rich.”

Players like Joe Coble, prevailing against the privileged odds of his day, winning a fledgling tournament in Dayton in front of ordinary people, helped open the game to the masses.

Whether they cheered for the new champion of municipal golfers or not.

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