With 23 holes and four to go, the new incarnation of the Union League National Golf Club, designed by Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, would normally see a grand reopening towards the end of 2022. But the golf course has never completely closed, and architects Dana Fry and Jason Straka don’t expect their ambitious revegetation effort to end until 2024.
“Nothing about Union League National is normal,” Fry said. “Traditionally, a project that takes this long – we started in 2018 – drives the members crazy. But we staggered our work over about nine holes at a time, so 18 of the 27 holes were always open for play. Psychologically, this approach was smarter than we knew: because the members here watched The Big Fill emerge slowly, then completely transform their golf course.
Any discussion of the Union League National begins with The Big Fill, a large-scale earthworks effort – over 1.6 million cubic meters – which Fry/Straka created in the center of the 268 acre parcel. It rises 78 feet above sea level, 56 feet above original level. However, its tendrils extended for hundreds of meters in half a dozen directions. The man-made ridges taper slowly but gracefully, rising and forming new, smaller plateaus, from which other distinct ridge networks break off into the landscape.
“All of these ridges are like the arteries in a human body,” Fry said. “By the time we completed the major earthworks, the largest section of The Big Fill housed eight tee complexes, nine green complexes and parts of seven fairways. It’s so massive: 78 feet tall in places. It covers 45 acres! The same way an architect blends the surrounding contours into a single green complex, we blend an entire routing into the contours we created through The Big Fill.
“Why do we carry these crests so far? Because that’s part of what makes artificial earth shaping look natural. The other part rests on the vegetation. The aesthetic and environmental vision for this property would never be realized without Jason’s understanding of agronomy, planting, aquatic plants, soil biology.
According to Straka, current president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects, “From the front tees to the greens, most Union League fairways are at – or three to five feet below – natural level, with a native -rough edge.We’ve specified 13 different species of native grasses, groundcovers and shrubs, as well as dozens of varieties of wetland plants, to create a rugged look of Pine Valley and to control the In addition, thousands of oaks, cedars and pines have been planted or moved to connect existing tree lines and those edges native to The Big Fill itself. We worked very hard and did all kinds of site visits with conservationists in southern New Jersey to get these plantings perfect. We even took the construction crew to Pine Valley to make sure we got the to see and factory management ethics 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 on display for quite a while. “In five or 10 years,” Fry said, “they’re going to say we’ve found the most amazing natural dirt ridge in all of South Jersey.”
Union League National is located just one hour southeast of Pine Valley in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey. These 27 holes occupy the footprint of a public 27-hole 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, was traditionally a city club. However, its many members come from all over Greater Philadelphia, including summer communities along the Jersey Shore. The club purchased Sand Barrens Golf Club in 2017. The former owners of the public facility, Malcolm and Edson Robertson, are members of the Union League – and Calusa Pines, a 2001 Hurdzan/Fry design in Naples, Florida. Fry/Straka was retained and on site in Avalon in February 2018.
“We rolled out The Big Fill to Calusa, but not on this scale,” Fry said. “This is honestly the only course design I know of, anywhere, that combines the two crucial elements: the massive earthwork style and a Pine Valley style palette – the soil and vegetation we associate with great golf. That’s frankly why Jason or I and many times the two of us have been here on site pretty much every week for five years now It’s a huge job and a huge opportunity to create something really We have never undertaken a project that better highlights the strengths of our firm.
Fry/Straka handles renovation and original design projects across North America, while Yas Acres in Dubai, the company’s first commission in the Middle East, christened its front nine last month. The company also has ongoing projects in Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and the United States.
In the Philadelphia Union League, 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, acquiring the former Ace Club in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, north of the city. Renamed Union League Liberty Hill GC, it joins Union League National and Union League Torresdale, the League’s Donald Ross-urban designed golf club.
To Avalon, Club CEO Jeff McFadden and Director General of the ULN Jacob Hoffer provided the design and construction teams with 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 purpose was primarily cosmetic. They started to generate a large amount of fill, which we piled behind the 1st green of 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, which started as a small capital investment – cutting down trees and redoing bunkers – grew and transformed as members and the board began to see what which was possible. Even so, I still struggle to understand how Dana’s design vision works, how he can see what can happen to a golf hole before the digging even begins. It’s kind of amazing.
Embracing the perspective and scale of the evolving project, Union League National will undertake equally enterprising changes elsewhere on the property: a new clubhouse is planned, along with a short course, new training facilities, a putting course, chalets, a tennis complex and a swimming complex, all bordering a completely redesigned entrance scheme.
On the course, the Union League National will build a historic halfway house to conveniently and dramatically service golfers playing all three nines, each named after a Union Army general: Meade, Sherman and Grant.
“In many ways, the halfway house is the hub of the entire golf project,” Fry said, “and it will occupy one of the most spectacular halfway house settings in all of golf. The architecture they talk about – nestled against a man-made hillside peninsula, with a rooftop patio, multiple patios downstairs, and seating for 100 people – is out of this world.