Course Reviews & More
Union League National Golf Club – A Masterpiece in the Making
Reviewed by Sean Fawcett, njgolfnews.com senior writer
Imagine being there when the Eiffel Tower was being erected, or when DaVinci was painting The Last Supper, or when Michaelangelo painted The Sistine Chapel, or when The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper, or when The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, and his E Street Band first played The Stone Pony in Asbury Park. Imagine that, if you can, and you will sort-of know what The Union League of Philadelphia’s members and their guests are feeling and seeing, when playing at the new Union League National Golf Club.
Now in its third year of renovations, Union League National just north of Avalon in Swainton, NJ, was formerly Sand Barrens Golf Club but you'd never know it. It’s being totally and almost unbelievably reimagined by its original Sand Barrens architect, Dana Fry, and his partner Jason Straka, into one of the elite golf courses in the entire country.
Fry and Straka have worked together for more than twenty years on award winning projects all over the world. Fry is the architect of Erin Hills which hosted the 2017 US Open, and New Jersey's own Hamilton Farm Golf Club. He credits much of his work to his former co-designer and mentor the late golf course architect and artist Mike Strantz, perhaps best known for his work at Tobacco Road near Pinehurst, North Carolina and Caledonia Golf and Fish Club near Myrtle Beach. They came up through the ranks with world renowned architect Tom Fazio.
Fazio's concept behind this new Union League National is to create one of the best in the country, inspired by two great golf courses, New Jersey’s iconic Pine Valley and Fry’s design at Calusa Pines in Florida.
"The course is totally unrecognizable from when it was Sand Barrens," said Union League National Golf Club General Manager Jacob Hoffer. "Lakes ponds and creeks, plus vast waste areas and creative vertical elevation, all create so much more drama than there was here before."
"There’s a little of Pine Valley and Calusa Pines, Dana's course from down in Naples(Fla.)" added Hoffer. "Put them both in a blender and you have the new Union League National. It's a great course and a sight to behold."
One of the most memorable "attractions" to see at Union League National Golf Club is the "Big Fill. "At its highest point, it reaches a height just over 78 feet above sea level. The existing ground was around 18 feet above sea level, meaning close to 60 feet of fill were brought in. The "Big Fill" is modeled after a somewhat shorter 48- foot fill at Calusa Pines. It is a sharp, vertical man-made mini mountain that covers over 45 acres and was constructed from the dirt when digging out Union League’s brand new lakes, ponds and creeks.
The Big Fill towers over the Union League's 27-hole facility. Each of the three nines is named after a Civil War Union general– Ulysses S. Grant, George Meade and William. T. Sherman. From it, one can see many awe-inspiring and totally breath-taking views of multiple tees, fairway and green complexes.
"The Big Fill is the primary, and most prominent feature of the course," says artichect Fry. "You can see the whole course from the top. Everything just spreads out from underneath you from the summit of the Fill."
Besides the Big Fill a massive year-long strategic tree, native grass and wetland plants revegetation project was implemented by Jason Straka. Over one million plants were planted, including regional grasses and shrubs like broomsedge, switchgrass, bayberry, different varieties of sedges, bearberry, scrub areas and all around the course with more to come. While this project still has years to go and really is still in its early stages, the ultimate aim of all the new growth is to return the property to its natural forested condition and surroundings and create a feeling similar to the one that golfers get at courses like Pine Valley, Bandon Dunes, Friar’s Head, Sand Valley and Pinehurst #2 get when playing those iconic and very natural landscapes.
Additionally, creating the Big Fill dug created some interesting and unique features to several of the par 3's and 4's. For instance, on the fifth hole on Meade, one of the par 3's plays through two ridges downhill to a slender green fronted by water. The two man-made ridges on the hole creates a cool canyon-like atmosphere that will challenge golfers of all levels, including low handicappers and professionals.
On the eighth hole, also on Meade, is a straight uphill, and occasionally drivable Risk/Reward Par 4 with bunkers, which need to be avoided, all around the fairway and green. The hole measures just 306 yards. It tees off right below the halfway house and plays uphill about 25 feet. Long hitters will have a gutsy decision of whether to go for the green or more probably, get up-and-down from one of the greenside bunkers. Otherwise, play more prudently and lay-up off the tee to try and set up for a full wedge or get imaginative with a straight-forward, but also extremely tricky, bump-and-run approach.
Several other holes at the twenty-seven hole facility offer many more Risk/Reward opportunities with reachable greens and split fairways forcing players to have to think and aim and play strategically. This adds to the fun and challenge of Fry/Stranka's absolutely jaw-dropping and significantly improved Union League National layout.
"Pine Valley and Calusa Pines are the inspiration," said Fry. "The great thing about those two courses, and Pine Valley in particular, is that they just look so natural that they look like they’ve always been there.
"The soil is the very same sand-based soil as the Pine and Oak forested terrain you have where Pine Valley is located less than an hour away.
"Our goal is to make it look so natural that you can’t tell that it was actually built. My hope is to be around in 30 years to see it when it is all grown and fully mature. This is one of my all-time favorite projects. It's really going to be something very special."
Without a doubt, Fry's comments were hyperbole; it’s just a fact. Union League National is a masterpiece, and it will, in the not too distant future, be thought of right along the likes of America's finest golf courses.
Courtesy of Union League National Golf Club
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