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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Highlighting Two of NJ's Finest Courses: Galloway National and Pine Barrens Golf Club

Review by Sean Fawcett

Great golf courses are the ones that kind of always look like they were always there. Two terrific examples of this natural style of golf course design are two of South Jersey's most revered private golf clubs, Galloway National Golf Club and Pine Barrens Golf Club.

One of the state's premiere private golf clubs, Galloway National is annually ranked inside the Top 100 golf courses in America by top publications like Golfweek and Golf Digest. Galloway National, located down the road from another historic golf course, Seaview Golf Club in Galloway, is nothing short of a serene and pristine golfer's paradise. Hall of Fame architect Tom Fazio combined the area's sandy pine forested mainland and the marshy, linksy bayside edges to create a course that's part Pinehurst and part Kiawah Island.

The par 3s are one of the many, and main attractions of Galloway National, with some playing over both marsh and vast expanses of sand. The par 3 2nd hole, playing about 150 yards from the back tee with the bay to the right and a hundred yards of marsh to carry, is one of Galloway's most beautiful holes. Similarly, the Par 3,5th hole, plays in the opposite direction with the bay to the left,  typically plays right into a cutting bay breeze coming up from the South. The much longer, but downhill,. par 3, 17th hole is Galloway's "signature hole" with the Atlantic City skyline in the background, plays towards the bay to the 18th tee.

Galloway National Golf Club
Photo credit: Scott Schaffer

"It's kind of like Pinehurst North" said Jason Lamp, Galloway National Golf Club P.G.A. Director of Golf, and 2006 NJSGA New Jersey Open champion. "It's a pure shot making course. You use every single club in your bag here. There's not a bad hole out there. It's as good as it gets." 

The holes on the west side of historic Route 9, starting with the par 5, 11th hole, have players feeling like they are in the Sandhills Region of North Carolina. A good second shot, short of the water fronting the green, or to the fairway to the right, will set up a wedge or pitch for a possible birdie opportunity. Longer hitters hoping for that elusive eagle can press their luck going straight down the left side, but will have to navigate around a pond with their second shot from about 200 yards. 

"The condition of the course is just about perfect all the time," said Lamp. " We have six terrific holes on the water which all have unbelievable views of the city. The rest of the course is a little different, but just as beautiful. Tom (Fazio) is one of the biggest names in golf course architecture, and like his uncle(George), he is one of the very best to have ever built a golf course. Galloway National is just a very special place. It's one of my favorite places to play, and I get to play it all the time."

The same, and similar, sentiments describe Galloway's northern neighbor, Pine Barrens Golf Club located in Jackson Township in Ocean County. Opened in 1999 as a public's "Pine Valley", Pine Barrens, a private club which is part of the Empire Golf Management group, is without-a-doubt, one of the more beautifully forested golf courses anywhere.

"A great golf course should look as natural as it can," added Pine Barrens Director of Golf and Head PGA Golf Professional, Bryan DeMarco. "Pine Barrens is built in the sand and scrub pines of the historic New Jersey Pinelands. It looks, and feels, like it's been here forever."

Fair and fun with wide fairways and smooth, manicured greens, Pine Barrens Golf Club is a true golfer's golf course. Situated upon 420 acres of natural terrain, this award-winning Championship golf course shows off parts of New Jersey's picturesque Pinelands Reserve and is complemented by a magnificent Wilderness-styled clubhouse. Some golfers feel like when looking over their shoulder at Pine Barrens, they can see the majestic Rocky Mountains.

Pine Barrens' signature hole, the par 3,14th hole, which depending on the tee, plays betwee 160 and 220 yards, with a tee shot that calls for a carry over a quarry to a green surrounded by hills.

Pine Barrens boasts several risk-reward style golf holes as well, some with double fairway features like the delightful par 5,15th hole. Playing left-to-right and downhill, when played correctly, this hole calls for a solidly struck tee-ball to set up a medium-length layup to a second fairway.

The short par-4, 7th hole is yet another terrific risk-reward hole. Measuring only about 270-some yards from the middle tees, the surprisingly challenging hole forces the golfer decide to either try driving the green or laying up for a wedge or a pitch over a sand moat which guards the green's front and connects to a massive sandy waste down the left side of the fairway.

"Pine Barrens is that great golf course to get away from everything," DeMarco said. " Since there is no surrounding community, it's just the golfer and the course.  Throw in wonderful practice facilities, a genuine staff, and a supportive membership, and you have one awesome private facility." 

If you have the opportunity and invitation, make sure to take the day and play two of the best naturally beautiful private courses in New Jersey.

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Pine Barrens

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