Pine Valley and Calusa Pines-inspired Union League project takes shape

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  • Union League

    Fry/Straka is under way with a huge project for the newly named Union League National Golf Club

  • Union League

    A comprehensive redesign of the former Sand Barrens layout began in 2018

  • Union League

    The course now features huge sand waste bunkers, much like Pine Valley

  • Union League

    Twelve holes of the renovation project have been completed

  • Union League

    “This property can contend to be one of the best golf experiences in the country,” says Jacob Hoffer, general manager at Union League National

Richard Humphreys
By Richard Humphreys

Golf architecture firm Fry/Straka has completed 12 holes of a huge renovation project on the newly-named Union League National Golf Club in Swainton, New Jersey, and is now working on the club’s ‘Sherman’ nine.

The Sand Barrens Golf Club, originally designed by Hurdzan & Fry, was purchased by The Union League of Philadelphia – a city club founded in 1862 that now has over 4,000 members – in October 2017 and renamed Union League National Golf Club. The club contracted Fry/Straka to create a master plan, and construction work began in February 2018.

“The project is a 27-hole renovation that began as somewhat of a facelift on the property,” said Jacob Hoffer, general manager at the club. “As the project began to take shape, we felt it necessary to go deeper into a renovation. Even prior to opening in the spring of 2018, the initial membership push — based just on the concept — proved that we were about to embark on something pretty special.”

“The League wanted to make a splash early on, so all six starting and finishing holes were completed first,” said Jason Straka. “We are now working to complete the South nine, which has been renamed the Sherman nine. There is some work being done on adjacent holes of the other nines to accommodate the shifting and rerouting of the Sherman holes.

“The next nine to be tackled later this year is the Grant nine. However, there may be some mixing and matching by region.”

Eighteen holes are being kept open for play while work proceeds, with an expected completion date sometime between autumn 2021 and spring 2022.

Originally, the renovation was to clean up bunkers, remove overgrown vegetation and revamp some of the green complexes. “As the initial impact of these renovations began to be seen, it was clear we had the opportunity to do something spectacular and fortunately our membership supported us in the decision to push forward with more impactful renovations,” said Hoffer.

Straka said: “The freedom to do something quite unique essentially from scratch in the United States is the most exciting thing about the project. That is quite rare these days. Once Dana and I were given the freedom to really push the envelope we developed a concept that is a cross between Calusa Pines and Pine Valley. The old Sand Barrens did not have very much topographic relief to it, so given the budget we decided to create one massive, meandering fill that impacts over nine holes — spread over all three nines.”

Fry said: “I have been designing courses for over 30 years and to me the single most unique thing about this project is that it combines two dramatically different styles that I have never seen on any other course in the world. It has massive earthmoving that, in time, will appear to look natural, much like we did at Calusa Pines.”

On five holes, fairways tie directly into one big fill area that covers over 35 acres. “This gives the other 22 holes an incredibly unique low-profile look with the very rough-edged natural looking bunkering built into many of today’s newer courses,” said Fry. “The combination of the massive earthmoving and the low-profile looking areas is something people that are into golf course design will really find interesting.”

“What started off as elevations of 15 to 20 feet above sea level are now 80 feet above sea level,” said Straka. “There are now dramatic elevation changes, with holes playing up and downhill, without being difficult to walk. The Pine Valley homage comes from the massive, meandering sand waste bunkers throughout the golf course. Pine Valley was kind enough to host our design, construction, and maintenance team, giving us a tour and in-depth study of many of its intricacies. For example, we carefully studied and identified the native plant species in the waste bunkers and natural areas. It has compacted sand paths with a species called ‘path rush’ along its edges too.

“The elevation changes are similar now between both courses, so while Union League is wider, Pine Valley’s individual shots were carefully studied for design precedents. Thus far, nearly 750,000 native plants have been brought in or transplanted on site. This doesn’t include the acres upon acres of wetland plantings or the upland seeded areas. Besides Pine Valley, we also ventured out to the local military base in the New Jersey Pine Barrens region to study the native vegetation. Union League is not only a project of great scale like Calusa Pines was, but also a massive environmental restoration project likely not seen in this region in a long time.

“For those who have played Sand Barrens and have not toured the new project, they won’t even recognise it. The scale is immense, from the rolling and dramatic Calusa-like hills to the lower profile rugged holes, nothing looks the same.”

When asked to pick out a standout hole, Fry highlights the eighth on the Sherman nine. “It is a 309-yard par four that plays dramatically uphill to a small elevated green that is about 25 feet higher than the tees,” he said. “It is possible to run the ball up to the green if you can hit it up the left side of the fairway which narrows at about 275 yards off the tee to approximately 20 yards wide. The green sits on the edge of a steep bunker with very dramatic and deep bunkering cut into its slope. Behind the green sits a massive ridge that reaches close to an elevation of almost 80 feet above sea level. It is an unbelievably dramatic golf hole that will have the golf world talking for sure.”

Fry and Straka have worked with “an all-star team” on this huge transformation.

“Jeff McFadden and the Union League board need to be credited for their vision and trust,” said Straka. “Nothing happens without them. The Union League of Philadelphia is not the top-rated city club in the US for no reason. Jeff is a visionary, and a fellow Cornell alum. They had the vision, gave it to their talented staff to implement, and off the project went.”

Fry/Straka is working with Union League’s chosen contractor Guaranteed Landscape, led by Tim Malone and including Mike Morris, who has worked on many high-profile projects in Philadelphia. The designers have also brought in shapers Ernie Polverari and Luis Varela, whose previous work includes sand-based projects at Mammoth Dunes in Sand Valley, Wisconsin, and Gamble Sands in Washington.

Scott Bordner, who has recently moved from Chicago Golf Club, is the director of agronomy. “As good as a design as Dana and I can create, it is nothing without great conditioning and grow-in,” said Straka. “Scott is a rock star and I have no doubt he’ll be hosting a lot of his colleagues to see the work he’s done.”

Union League National joins other Union League properties, including Philadelphia and Torresdale. The Torresdale course was renovated by Stephen Kay following Union League’s acquisition in 2014.

“Through the success of that project, we felt that there was an opportunity to provide an elite golf product for our members who owned summer homes at the New Jersey Shore,” said Hoffer. “Following some data collection, we learned that we had over 1,600 Union League members who owned a summer home in the shore communities. A known issue with the public golf in our region was that it was difficult to land a good starting time. We felt that if we could deliver exclusive access to an elite golf product and provide fast rounds of golf, that our members would take advantage of that.

“The golf program at the Union League is based on golfer development and making the game enjoyable and approachable for all ability levels. Playability is one of the most important attributes we use when discussing what we’d like from a golf standpoint. With that said, to stand out in our market we were looking for something unique.

“I truthfully believe that this property can contend to be one of the best golf experiences in the country following the renovation’s completion. It is completely unique to the area and will stand head and shoulders above the other products in our region.”

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