With 23 holes down and four to go, the new incarnation of Union League National Golf Club, designed by Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, would normally be looking at a grand reopening sometime in late 2022. But the golf course never fully closed, and architects Dana Fry and Jason Straka don’t anticipate their ambitious re-vegetation effort to conclude until 2024.
“Nothing about Union League National is normal,” Fry said. “Traditionally, a project that takes that long — we broke ground in 2018 — drives a membership crazy. But we phased our work approximately nine holes at a time, so 18 of the 27 holes have always been open for play. Psychologically, that approach was more clever than we knew: Because the membership here watched The Big Fill slowly emerge, then completely transform their golf course property.”
Any discussion of Union League National begins with The Big Fill, a large-scale earthmoving effort — more than 1.6 million cubic yards in scope — that Fry/Straka created at the center of the 268-acre parcel. It rises to 78 feet above sea level, 56 feet above the original grade. However, its tendrils spread out hundreds of yards in half a dozen directions. The man-made ridgelines slowly but elegantly taper down, only to rise again and form new, smaller plateaus, from which other distinct ridge networks splinter off into the landscape.
“All these ridges are like the arteries a human body,” Fry said. “By the time we finished with the major earthwork, the largest section of The Big Fill accommodated eight tee complexes, nine green complexes and parts of seven fairways. It’s that massive: 78 feet high in places. It covers 45 acres! In the same way an architect blends surrounding contours into a single green complex, we are blending an entire routing into the contours we created via The Big Fill.
“Why do we carry those ridgelines out so far? Because that’s part of what makes man-made earth shaping look natural. The other part relies on vegetation. The aesthetic and environmental vision for this property would never be fulfilled without Jason’s understanding of the agronomics, the plantings, the aquatic plants, the soil biology.”
According to Straka, the sitting president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, “From the forward tees to the greens, most of the fairways at Union League are at — or three to five feet below — natural grade, with a native-rough edge. We specified 13 different species of native grasses, ground covers and shrubs, plus dozens of wetland plant varieties, to create a rugged Pine Valley look, and to control erosion. Additionally, thousands of oak, cedar and pine trees were planted or relocated to connect the existing tree lines and those native edges to The Big Fill itself. We worked very hard and conducted all sorts of site walks with ecologists, across southern New Jersey, to get these plantings just right. We even took the construction team to Pine Valley to ensure we got the look and plant management ethos just right.”
Fry/Straka expects the final four holes to be completed and playable by July 1. However, the finished product at Union League National won’t be in evidence for quite a while. “In five or 10 years,” Fry said, “they’re going to say that we found the most amazing natural dirt ridge in all of south Jersey.”
Union League National is located just an hour southeast of Pine Valley, in the storied Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. These 27 holes occupy the footprint of a 27-hole public course, designed by Hurdzan/Fry, which took shape in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The Union League of Philadelphia, formed during the Civil War, had traditionally been a city club. Its vast membership, however, is drawn from all over Greater Philadelphia, including the summer communities along the Jersey shore. The club purchased Sand Barrens Golf Club in 2017. The public facility’s former owners, Malcolm and Edson Robertson, are members at the Union League — and at Calusa Pines, a 2001 Hurdzan/Fry design in Naples, Florida. Fry/Straka was retained and onsite in Avalon by February 2018.
“We deployed The Big Fill at Calusa, but not on this scale,” Fry said. “This is honestly the only course project I know of, anywhere, that combines the two crucial elements: the massive earth-moving style and a Pine Valley-style palette — the soil and vegetation that we associate with great golf. That’s frankly why Jason or myself, and many times the both of us, have been here, on site, pretty much every week for going on five years now. It’s a massive job and a massive opportunity, to create something really special. We’ve never undertaken a project that better underlines the strengths of our firm.”
Fry/Straka is busy with renovation and original design projects across North America, while Yas Acres in Dubai, the firm’s first Middle Eastern commission, christened its front nine last month. The firm also has projects underway in Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and the United States.
In the Union League of Philadelphia, Fry/Straka are collaborating with an equally innovative and ambitious partner. After purchasing the former Sand Barrens property, the club expanded its holdings, in early 2021, by acquiring the former Ace Club in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, north of the city. Renamed Union League Liberty Hill GC, it joins in the fold Union League National and Union League Torresdale, the League’s Donald Ross-designed city golf club.
In Avalon, club CEO Jeff McFadden and ULN general manager Jacob Hoffer have granted the design and construction teams extraordinary resources and latitude. “The Big Fill approach started out as a solution,” Hoffer said. “Jason and Dana were redoing a large bunker complex where the goal was mainly aesthetic. They started to generate a large amount of fill, which we piled up behind the 1st green on the Meade course. We talked about maybe paying to have it removed — and we literally saw the light bulb go on in Dana’s head. He said, ‘Calusa’, climbed to the top of the pile, and started spelling out what was involved.
“The game plan, what started as a small capital investment — taking down some trees and redoing some bunkers — grew and morphed as the members and the board started to see what was possible. Even so, it’s still hard for me to understand how Dana’s conceptual vision works, how he can see what can happen to a golf hole before the earthwork even begins. It’s sort of amazing.”
Embracing the prospect and scale of the evolving project, Union League National will undertake equally enterprising change elsewhere on the property: A new clubhouse is planned, along with a short course, new practice facilities, putting course, cottages, tennis complex and swimming complex, all lining an entirely reimagined entrance scheme.
On course, Union League National will construct a landmark halfway house facility to conveniently and dramatically service golfers playing all three nines, each of which has been named for a Union Army general: Meade, Sherman and Grant.
“In many ways, the halfway house is the fulcrum of the entire golf project,” Fry said, “and it will occupy one of the most dramatic halfway-house settings in all of golf. The architecture they’re discussing — tucked up against a man-made, hillside peninsula, with a patio on the roof, multiple patios down below, and seating for 100 people — is off the charts.”