Tuesday, February 28, 2023 / by Teresa DiPeso
In 2022, Golf Digest panelists visited 21 Best New Course and Best Transformation nominees. The latter is an award for courses that have undergone an alteration beyond mere renovation, perhaps with an entirely new design or the introduction of new holes in which the course name remains the same, but the architectural reset makes the property almost unrecognizable.
Best Reimagined Course: Union League National Golf Club, Swainton, N. J.
When it comes to reinvention, Union League National is the Thomas Edison of golf courses. New Jersey native Edison, the prolific inventor who moved to the Garden State in his early 20s, also dabbled at golf, but even he couldn’t contemplate the transformation that has taken place at the golf course once known as Sand Barrens.
Originally designed in 1997 by Dr. Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry, Sand Barrens eventually ran into financial turmoil, resulting in a sale to the venerable Union League of Philadelphia, a downtown institution since 1862. Understanding that they had purchased a jewel badly in need of repolishing, the new owner retained Dana Fry, now in partnership with Jason Straka to reimagine the 27-hole layout. That’s precisely what has taken place. Inspired by the world’s greatest course, Pine Valley, located just an hour away to the northwest and by Fry’s own work at Florida’s Calusa Pines, he set upon re-sculpting every part of the property.
Critical to what essentially became a brand-new build was the creation of an enormous landform in the center of the property called “The Big Fill,” which completely changed the character of the formerly flat layout. Extending from the towering fill are tentacle-like ridgelines that veer off in different directions that form the basis for holes and features along the tapered terrain.
“All these ridges are like arteries in a human body,” said Fry. “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.”
The project commenced in 2018, with nine holes at a time being taken out of play so as to always have 18 available holes for members. This past July, Fry and Straka concluded work on the final four holes of the 27 from a design standpoint. Still in progress is a continued repopulating of native grasses, ground covers, shrubs, wetland plantings and trees. Expected completion date for the enhanced vegetation project is 2024. Even Thomas Edison would beam with pride at the creativity on display at Union League National.