6,227 yards, 137 slope from the Blues
Course: One of the closer courses to Center City Philadelphia, The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale is in Philadelphia proper in the Frankford-Torresdale area. The course started as the Torresdale Country Club in 1896, but the first nine holes were not built until the early 1900’s, which was done by George Sayers, who was the pro at Merion GC. At that point, the club was called Torresdale-Frankford Country Club. In 1921, Donald Ross comes in and remodels the existing nine holes, along with building a second nine. The TFCC remained a prominent country club in the Philadelphia area for decades, even offering trap shooting. I ended up playing it for the first time when I was just starting out with golf while it was the TFCC. While I was only vaguely familiar with Donald Ross at the time, I had a nice feeling about the course, even though I spent most of the time hoping I could at least get the ball airborne.
In 2014, the Union League acquired TFCC and implemented a significant renovation to the clubhouse as well as a restoration of the golf course. Stephen Kay developed an original plan a few years prior to performing the work, which consisted of re-sizing the greens to original scale since they had grown smaller over the years, widening fairways, removing a significant number of trees and restoring all tees and bunkers. Some back tees were also added. A new practice facility and short game area was added as well. The restored course brought back most if not all of the Ross features and that was the intent. It re-opened in 2017.
Currently, Rees Jones has been developing a renovation project for the course. While it remains to be seen what work will be done, my take is that the course may be worked a little towards being able to host pro tournaments. I know additional land has been purchased adjoining the course and we could see some lengthening and routing changes, but again, I’m guessing.
It certainly appears that the course is in good hands with the Union League and they are doing what they can to elevate the prominence of this Donald Ross darling.
As for the course, it is set on rolling terrain, where a creek and ridges create forced carries and a handful of blind shots, straight holes mixed with dog legs and challenging greens. It’s certainly a parkland course, with lots of trees on the property that create corridors and affect lines of play, which I believe was Ross’ intent based on some other courses I have played of his. There is noticeable elevation differences even within the same hole while bunkering is generally well placed. A great example of a well designed shorter course providing plenty of challenge.
It was time for me to return to ULGCT after all these years. We had both changed so much, the course and I. Me – wiser, a better player, paunchier; the course – more refined, sleeker, sophisticated; it was time for a reunion to catch up. I also wanted to see it before it underwent any other changes to see how it played after the recent restoration.
Despite playing the course all those years ago, it felt like I was playing it for the first time. Whether it was from the restoration or just the haze of time I’m not sure, but the round was fresh, each shot a new one. It also didn’t help that I was in a shotgun scramble the last time I played it.
So on a late summer day, I put a tee in the ground and with my gracious host, got around this spruced up Ross for what seemed like the first time.
The First is a 333 yard par 4 (from the Blues). An elevated tee shot to a fairway running downhill away from you, tilting right to left and abruptly ending at Byberry Creek. The green is on the other side, uphill from the fairway, with the first bunkers creating a false front and the green surrounded by bunkers. The rear bunkers are not original to the Ross design, but were likely kept for the additional challenge they bring. The green moves back to front and considering the short shot you should have in, it becomes imperative to hit the green. A nice combination of short length, shot selection off the tee and challenge with the approach for an opener. When I start to think about it, I can’t think of too many Ross courses where the opening hole is the gentle handshake. He always seems to get you grinding right off the bat.
The Second is a 370 yard par 4. This hole was actually one of my favorites on the course. The fairway heads uphill and ever so slightly to the left, with trees lining both sides. The fairway then crests and dips to the green, which makes pretty much every approach shot completely blind. The green runs back to front but drops off suddenly off the back, so while the rear portion of the green can be used to retrace back to the green, too much means you’re likely well below the green and in the trees. The blind approach shot was a lot of fun, especially playing it the first time and the green accommodates the shot nicely.
The Third is a 413 yard par 4. The tee shot is straight into what I’ll call a valley fairway, since it sits below both the tee and green. Trees are on both sides but there is sufficient width for forgiveness and options of angles off the tee. There is one fairway bunker on the left that probably comes into play more than it should. The green sits on a plateau and rises rather abruptly. An apron is in front of the green leading down towards there fairway while bunkers are on either side on the front, then on the back left. An exact approach is necessary, this time to a healthy uphill green and for a chance at par, a tee shot in a place where an exact approach can be had is necessary. In other words, thinking through this hole backwards is always a good idea.
The Fourth is a 152 yard par 3. An uphill tee shot with a forced carry to the green. The long bunker short of the green has a steep face, making recovery shots to the green precarious. Long wide bunkers hug the corners of the green, with a short grass area running off the long left side and across on the right. The green movies from back to front and like most of the greens, moves fast. The risk of the ball falling off the front and rolling down towards the wide bunker is real as well.
Every Ross hole has a shorter par 3 and this is it for ULGCT. Accordingly, the defenses are plenty, requiring acumen with the short iron.
The Fifth is a 313 yard par 4. By now, you should be warmed up and hopefully your score is still in good shape, yet it would not be surprising if you needed to make up some ground. This shorter hole is a sharp dog leg right, with the fairway rolling downhill before coming back up and turning to the green. The inside of the turn is rife with bigger bunkers that sit below the fairway. There are different ways of playing this hole; whether you go shorter off the tee to ensure a safe landing area or bomb it for a short second shot, risking the trees and bunkers off the tee, the fairway narrows considerably as you get closer to the green and the bunkers are treacherous, so tread carefully.
The Sixth is a 417 yard par 4. Straight and on the narrow side, the fairway has a hump in it, rising from the tee before humping and moving downhill to the green. Like the Second, the approach is likely a longer blind shot but the green is open to the fairway and bunkers are sparser here than other holes. Anything off fairway gets into immediate trouble, so keep it straight!
The Seventh is a 454 yard par 4. A longer uphill par 4, the tees are set to the left side of the hole, elevated. Water is off to the right, with Byberry Creek beyond. The fairway cants from left to right with bunkers on the right side. Once again, straight is the name of the game here. Straight and long to be exact. The green sits at the top of the hill, moving left to right as well. It’s a tougher hole requiring two well hit brawny shots.
The Eighth is a 453 yard par 4. Running downhill, there is a drop off into bunkers at the end of the fairway. What can’t be seen is that there is more fairway after the bunkers before reaching the creek. Most will go for the green on their approach but if you don’t have a shot into the green on your second, keep in mind there is room there for a shorter approach shot into the green. Regardless, the creek must be carried to get to the green, with a bunker on the left and right side.
The contrast in approach shots with respect to elevation is pretty evident. Thus far, it’s been as follows: 1- elevated; 2 – below fairway; 3 – elevated; 4 – elevated; 5 – level; 6 – downhill; 7 – elevated; 8 – below fairway.
The Ninth is a 162 yard par 3. Crossing back over Byberry Creek for the tee shot, you get another forced carry over the creek to the green, which tilts from back left to front right. The front bunkers are below the green while those on the back and right sides are more level. Similar to the Fourth, this is a shorter par 3 where a precise shot is necessary to avoid lots of trouble with bunkers, rough, and awkward lies.
The front nine loops around the north side of the property and uses the elevation changes, creek and terrain well. There are no par 5’s on this side and it’s to a par of 34. I think this shows Ross is more concerned with providing a great course, taking what the land gave him with the routing, as the back nine routing is much different. I though the use of blind shots was used sparingly yet well. The variety of viable approach shots depending on the green also keeps things interesting. Ranking them, I would go 2, 3, 5, 1, 6, 4, 8, 9, 7.
The back nine starts with the 479 yard par 5 Tenth. See, what did I tell you? The first par 5 of the course, which is the first of three on this side. Going back uphill, it’s longer than the stated yardage. The fairway bends to the left as two bunkers are on the right side, then the left side further up. The fairway then comes back towards the right with an a nice transition from fairway to green. A long trench bunker hugging the entire right side of the green on that side reminded me of the one at LuLu on the Second. The green moves towards it as well, making it even more relevant. Anything missed too much off the green is probably in a good amount of trouble, as there is little forgiveness beyond the bunkers.
The Eleventh is a 213 yard par 3. My favorite par 3 on the course and I didn’t even take a photo from the tee! I must have been too excited. From the tee, you hit down to the green on the longest par 3 on the course. Byberry Creek runs at an angle across it, making it more difficult to carry the further right you go. There is ample room on the left to bail out and either try to scramble or settle for bogey. There is run off room on the back side and bunkers at each back corner. The green runs from back to front as well, so any pin on the right side of the green is particularly tough. A pin in the front means you’re flirting with the creek while one in the back means you need to hit enough to carry the longest part of the creek, as well as get up the green, all without going into the bunker on that side. It’s a fascinating par 3 I could play all day.
The Twelfth is a 320 yard par 4. A short par 4 that climbs to the green. It’s essentially straight, but the widening and constricting of the fairway makes it feel as if there are some turns. The tee is also set off to the left, which brings the left bunkers into play more than they normally would be. The green ramps up from the fairway and is well defended by sunken bunkers on every side. With the wide fairway and short approach shot, Ross is yet again not leaving much leeway for those shots with a wedge or short iron. Because of the demanding approach, avoiding the trees and bunkers and getting in the fairway is paramount. Another example of needing to think through the hole starting with the green.
The Thirteenth is a 542 yard par 5. Running along the western most side of the property, this is the second longest hole of the course by a scant five yards. To the left of the hole is where I believe additional property has been purchased and my guess is that Rees will use that additional property to lengthen the course considerably. Again, just my guess. At any rate, the hole is straightaway, initially going downhill before climbing back up to the green. While the hole is nice and wide until about 100 yards in to the green, it’s more defective than anything, as it’s imperative to keep it relatively straight here. Mind the lie you’ll get with the hills as well, as a few well belted shots are necessary to get to the green in regulation. The diagonal green runs from back to front, with the entire left side guarded by two bunkers. It’s the number 2 handicapped hole and for good reason. Any shot too far offline will need to be played almost as a lateral the closer you get to the green. My advice is to get to the uphill for your approach, which will make it easier to get your ball in the air and land softly on the green.
The Fourteenth is a 212 yard par 3. Hitting over a gully to a green that moves from right to left, the bunker on the right is below the hole to collect those shots hit too close on that side. There is a row of bunkers on the left, staggered on the hillside, which is vintage Ross. There is some room to miss in the back, but the shot from there will be delicate one to handle. Considering its length, short may be the only miss to be happy with.
The Fifteenth is a 291 yard par 4. The shortest par 4 on the course stays true to the theme of the course; control your ball and finesse over brawn. Bombing and gouging is almost impossible to get away with. Here, the green is a semi punch bowl with undulations and moving from back to front, with two trench bunkers at the rear of the green. There’s a small opening from the fairway to roll the ball on, but generally you need to be in a position to land the ball on the green. Trees on both sides mean the more direct center the better and placement on the green determines whether the two putt par is a possibility. Use whatever clubs you have that will stay straight and stay true to that line.
The Sixteenth is a 547 yard par 5. The longest hole on the course and the final par 5, the straight but there is still a lot going on here. The tee shot is to a fairway that slopes right to left and falls downhill. Trying to use that downhill off the tee is helpful but it ends just after the hill at some rough then the cart path, not an ideal location for the path. It would be nice to be able to use that hill completely and advance the ball as far forward as possible with the right tee shot. The fairway continues to Byberry Creek, which must be carried, then starts to gradually rise to the green. There’s a collection area towards the back left while bunkers guard either side, but there is an entry point from fairway to green. Trees line both sides, so along with distance is keeping it straight and negotiating the various lies you’re bound to run into. The green moves right to left and was of my favorite on the course. A nice par 5 for sure.
The Seventeenth is a 185 yard par 3. A drop shot with the green moving quickly from back to front. Bunkers line the front and there’s a short grass area at the front left where some balls on the green could roll down if they have enough speed. Sure the back side may be safer to aim to and miss, but with the green running away from you and not a whole lot of room, weigh that carefully. It’s a nice change of pace hole from the burly Sixteenth and at a good place to try and level those matches for the last.
The Eighteenth is a 371 yard par 4. A dog leg left where you actually tee off from the left side to make it turn even more. The hole climbs uphill, then turns to the green while going down just a little. Bunkers at either side of the turn keep your tee shot honest while they surround the green, on all sides and depths. As we’ve seen here, an exacting approach side is all that will do and in order to even have a clear look at the green, a well executed tee shot is necessary. The elevation and degree of turn here, as well as how many options are available since the green is downhill from the fairway with a large entrypoint, it’s a nice finishing hole striking a nice balance between challenge and strategy to close out those matches or tourneys.
The back nine loops around the south of the property and west of the property, with its routing a little different yet the right call based on how the holes present themselves. Length, looks and greens all change from to the other, with the constant being ball striking and accuracy are much more valuable than sheer distance. I’d rank them 11, 18, 12, 15, 10, 14, 17, 13.
Generally, The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale is a terrifically restored well conditioned Donald Ross course that emphasizes precision and finesse. It does a nice job of ensuring that sheer distance is not an advantage, which in turn makes you think your way through the course, in terms of setting up ideal approach shots, determining acceptable misses (if any) and deciding how to properly maneuver amongst the hazards with the necessary accuracy. There is a good amount of diversity with the holes and how they play, and especially with the green complexes. On a smaller piece of property (for now), the routing is outstanding, some how doing well in isolating most of the holes from one another, as well as from the area around the property. When all is said and done, the round is a challenging one, yet like I have seen on a lot of Ross courses, you will likely blame yourself for a high score rather than the course. While we see challenging Golden Age courses in our area like Rolling Green who have a larger scale and more undulating terrain, Ross does it here on a smaller piece of land without it ever feeling confined. Another example of a classic design that manages to stay relevant even today.
I’m not sure the direction Rees will take it, but the course is in good hands with the Union League so I’m excited to find out.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Very well stocked right off the Eighteenth green. And has one of the better club insignias that has come up recently.
The clubhouse itself is very well done. Wood paneling throughout and evoking what I’ll call sophisticated comfort, it is certainly one aspect of the club that makes it stand out.
Practice area: A full driving range, short game area and putting green