Union League National

  • Grant – 3,295 yards, 129 – 131 Slope from the Blues
  • Sherman – 3, 174 yards, 129 – 131 Slope from the Blues
  • Meade – 3,297 yards, 129 Slope from the Blues

Despite the throngs that frequent the South Jersey shore Summer after Summer, it remains undiscovered. It remains undiscovered because the potential for otherworldly golf still has not been realized there. Yes there are outstanding courses already; courses I love and think of as old friends. But there could be more, and different. Mind you, this is some of the best terrain for golf just about any where. With its sandy soil, coastal location and heavy seasonal clientele, there is potential for the next Streamsong or Sand Valley or Bandon. Yet most of the courses in the area, even the very good ones, are local treasures that most from other places wouldn’t think of traveling to. Perhaps that’s on purpose.

Just how great it can be has yet to be discovered. So much more can be done.

After my recent round at Union League National, it seems like someone is trying to push the envelope and raise the stakes. Tractors and construction crews were working around us as some of the holes we played were temporary and over utility pits, the 27 holes still well under construction at the time, but the finished holes exuded a commitment to polished excellence amidst varied shotmaking. Striving for the highest quality product around, mainly in its presentation and conditioning, yet its play is unlike anything around. While its architects, Jason Straka and Dana Fry, refer to Pine Valley and Calusa Pines for their inspiration, I found it to be more of a blend of naturalist modernism lingering a bit in the forgotten age of challenging shotmaking, a whiff of Congaree with a little Galloway National for good measure.

Union League National is the Union League’s second course, its first being Torresdale, review here https://golfadelphia.com/2019/03/18/union-league-golf-club-at-torresdale/ and like Torresdale, was an existing golf course the club took over. The prior course was Sand Barrens, 27 holes that Union League purchased in 2017. That course was designed by Hurdzan and Fry in 1997. The two now have separate design firms, with Fry and Straka taking on the current project. Hurdzan and Fry’s design designation of 1997 remains on the scorecard, for now. What started as a general tidying up and bunker updating turned into a full blown re-design as things got going. My sense of Congaree seems to have been spot on in the sense that extensive earth moving and manufacturing are involved to achieve a naturalistic look. The earth moving is immense. So much so that they’re creating the highest point in the county with the main hill they’re building.

While each nine holes have a distinct aura, in general the course has a smoothness to it. The fairways rumple and careen over and around sculpted and fescue laden bunkers. Some times, these bunkers dominate the landscape as wasteland on one side or the other. The elevation changes are gradual yet ultimately substantial while the forced carries are over pure light blue water. You almost hope your ball goes in to give you an excuse for a swim. There are pockets where the fairways spill over, rise or fall that allow for flexibility in placement into the greens while most fairways find their way to the greens to allow for a rambunctious ground game. The greens are stormy and troubled. Usually large and fraught with contours, undulations and tiers, they are an exciting bunch.

During construction, the club has eighteen holes open continually even though the available holes changed based on what was going on with construction. The day I was there, the Sherman nine was finished, which is below in full. We played a mix of the Grant and Meade holes for our other nine holes and I address the holes we played that were actually completed. Looks like I will need to get back and play the rest of the holes!

Each set of nine holes were named for a General of the Union army during the Civil War. My mother is a history buff, so by osmosis and receiving various books as gifts and getting around to eventually reading them, I happen to be one by default. In fact, I have read biographies on all three generals and know them fairly well. I was interested whether I would find any of their personality and character traits within the holes but either way, this may turn into a few history lessons as we move along.

If you read enough of these reviews, it’s probably evident I enjoy noting the progression of the season. It sticks out for some reason. Here, I specifically remember we had moved from that crisp early spring to a warmer refresh, winter now completely gone and a concerted effort to greet the first wisps of summer. That comfortable warmth had returned.

The Sherman Nine

Sherman was one of Grant’s favorite generals and relied on him tremendously both during the war and afterwards during his presidency. Sherman was steadfastly loyal to him and like Grant, was more direct and straightforward than politics preferred. Grant had an inner circle that he trusted immensely and looked to for counsel, which Sherman was a part of. By every account, he was integral to the Union victory.

The First is a 364 yard par 4 (from the Blues). Native flora is before us, transported and planted yet the different tones of green pop from the tee while sand flashes in spots nearby and far away. The fairway is straight out with a slight crest, slight uphill at first then breaking to a gentle descent to the green. Bunkers staggered left and right are before the green while the green has two ridges that intersect, causing quadrants of movement in different directions.

The First
Moving down the fairway
Short approach, the green hiding to the left
The green

The Second is a 177 yard par 3. A forced carry over water to a green that cascades from back to front. In fact, those catching the immediate front risk their ball falling into the water anyways while those above the hole with have a test of delicacy. The green is the feature here that makes the hole.

The Second

The Third is a 417 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot on part of the gigantic dune that was built up as part of the re-design, a waste area on the left must be cleared for those trying to set up their approach from that side while bunkers on the right must be accounted for as well. Water is along the left side through the green and the terrain cants in its direction. That left side off the tee becomes a lot more valuable knowing the movement and puts you in the best position to use it to your advantage.

The Third
Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 411 yard par 4. A forced carry over water and the fairway tightens a bit from holes prior. The waste area off to the left harkens where it converges with water, making it look like a nice little beach enclave to return to after the round with a few margaritas. That waste area is along the entire left side of the hole while the fairway moves downhill, pinched by sand coming in from the right at the approach. The green is set to the left, surrounded by that waste area yet tilting away from it while the entry point has plenty of short grass ploying off to the right. The tilt of the green taunts you to aim closer and closer to the waste area on the approach, bringing it into play for those who were able to stay away off the tee. Those margaritas may come in handy sooner rather than later.

The Fourth
Approach shot territory
A bit shorter

The Fifth is a 401 yard par 4. There seems to be a par 3 hidden among the dunes between the Fourth and Fifth. It seems relatively new and whether it serves as an alternate hole, or practice green or Nineteenth hole I don’t know, but it’s there. As for the Fifth, the tree line on the left remains rigid while the fairway on the right bumps out for more width off the tee. The wavy nature of the fairway leading up to the green as well as how the bunkers seem to float among those waves remind me of the Eleventh at Pine Valley, with alternate routes to the green around the bunkers and the contours taking each shot in a unique direction. The large green is inviting from several angles, a lone bunker at its front left center, its swales large and gradual, while sand awaits at the rear right.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory
The green, looking back

The Sixth is a 544 yard par 5. The monster dune is directly in our sights from the tee with an army of bunkers in formation before it. The tee shot can be before the first row of bunkers or can attempt to move past them. The second shot takes us further into the hills and the fairway gets stronger in its undulations, moving shots off to the right in general. This is as the golfer plots to avoid the bunker arrangement, as well as the slopes and contours that could possibly move the ball into said bunkers. The green is above it all, of course guarded by elongated bunkers, its high side on the left that can be used as a sideboard on the approach for those that know about it. The different lies and shot scenarios here are numerous while the challenge is stiffer than we’ve seen before. That challenge, however, can be managed by the calculating golfer.

The Sixth
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
A bit shorter
The green

The Seventh is a 224 yard par 3. Moving to the other side of the dune, the tee shot is a forced carry over water to a sinewy green that stretches beside the edge of the water. The time is now for greatness, for all else can hope for bogey at best.

The Seventh
From the back of the green

The Eighth is a 316 yard par 4. By far the most interesting and best looking hole of the Sherman set. Leading uphill from the tee, it feels more like a long par 3 than short par 4. The green is above us, the low right hillside full of bunkers while a couple bunkers are on the high left at front and center. The green is set on the ridge of the hill between the bunkers, looking like a sliver from the tee but it’s bigger than it looks. The center bunker is a good cue for where the center ridge runs through the green, which eschews away to the edges. The hole entices both aggressive and conservative play and gives measured response for missed shots. The green and its multiple directions brings an entirely new dimension to scoring well here and beyond all of the intriguing structure is the pleasing groomed natural appearing setting.

The Eighth
Just short of the green
From the right side, other side of the water
The green

The Ninth is a 502 yard par 5. Still within the dune, our tee shot takes us down from it to the fairway. We not only come down geographically but also metaphorically, as the hole is more subdued in its presentation from the excitement of the Eighth. Lots of width and a few smartly placed menacing bunkers to deal with as we proceed to the green, don’t be fooled by the center bunker; it is no where near the front of the green. With three shots at our disposal to get on the green, it should be enough, meant to finish things out with confidence.

The Ninth
Approach shot territory

The Sherman nine is a bit moody, has flashes of brilliance and is loyal to its overall design structure throughout, which in some ways is a good description of Sherman himself. The challenge is pleasing, with the ground movement amongst the elevation changes enjoyable. I would rank them 8, 6, 5, 4, 2, 3, 1, 9, 7.

Grant/Meade

I could write an entire article on Grant. He was extraordinarily brilliant in certain aspects of his life and had the opportunity to excel in them. Always a noble calm about him, his military strategy was bold, inventive and relentless. A couple things about him most do not know is that he was especially gifted with riding and breaking horses. In fact, after his presidency, he travelled the world and met a variety of world leaders, with the Sultan of Turkey offering Grant his pick of pure blood Arabian stallions. Grant picked the best of the lot, but was told any horse but that one. So he picked again and that horse made its way to the U.S., which started a pure breed of Arabian stallions still present today in our country. He was good friends with Mark Twain, who assisted him in writing his memoirs, up until his death.

Meade’s residence can still be seen in downtown Philadelphia. A civil engineer who received blowback for failing to pursue the Confederates as they retreated at Gettysburg, Grant kept close watch on him later on in the Western Theatre yet ultimately won Grant’s respect after Spotsylvania. Grant referred to him (and Sherman) as the, “fittest officers for large commands I have come into contact with.”

The Grant First is a 355 yard par 4. An opening tee shot that should cause some thought, to does widen further out but staying in the fairway is paramount and some may find a club other than driver the best to use off the tee. Bunker waste land is to the left while a tree line watches closely on the right. The green is below and a bit to the left of the fairway, moving from front to back and a ridge running across the center, creating a a higher front and lower back tier. The ground game into the green is very much in play, yet those wanting to carry all of the sand and mounds to land it close to the pin may do so as well. A solid opener.

The First
Bunkers at the left
Approach shot territory
The green

The Second is a 530 yard par 5. The tee shot is a forced carry over water. Sand wraps around the edge of the fairway, so that needs to be carried as well. Sand isn’t done with us, as it rushes across the fairway and demands a carry. After the bunker break, the fairway hooks right to the green, large ramped up dune bunkers on that side while the higher left side has a tree bunker to mix things up. Very much Congaree vibes here, it’s a nice balance of ball striking and challenge that showcases the better side of the course.

The Second
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
A bit closer

The Third is a 165 yard par 3. Sand is becoming a strong theme thus far and it continues here on the left side. The entry point to the green is on the right to right center while the green is large and moves towards the rear left.

The Third
The green, from the right side

This is where things got mixed in and gets a little muddled in terms of the round. We played the Meade Fourth, which was a 232 yard par 4. I suspect the hole will change as the dune behind the green develops. It looks like it will be a long par 4 or par 5, a forced carry from the fairway to the green over rough, yet this may be more from the prior design. The bunkers take on a different appearance at the Meade, separate with more structure, scalloped, instead of the natural waste areas that dominate the other two nines. The tee shot is tight, as well as a forced carry over water. This may be the nine more prone to seeking accuracy and perhaps finesse.

The (Meade) Fourth tee shot

While this was our Fifth, it appeared to be the Grant Fourth, which played as a 389 yard par 4. Water was still in the process of coming in along the left of the hole and this is another hole where driver may not be the best club off the tee. The tree line hugs tight on the right but then widens in the middle of the hole, with everything turning to the left where the green is located. There is rough separating the fairway from the green, so the approach will likely need to carry to the green. The water is not done with us at the tee; it runs up to the green on the left side so those that vie for the left side of the green, they will likely contend with water to some degree.

The Grant Fourth
Approach shot territory
A bit shorter, from the right
Looking back

We played this as a short par 3, clearly teed up in what will be the fairway. No idea what hole this will be but the green and bunkers are finished. With the bunkers all below and the green of moderate size, this is an exacting shot from any distance.

The Meade Seventh is a 416 yard par 4. The landscape is decidedly different here, much more of a parkland feel with the the trees, fairways appear narrower and off fairway areas get very nasty in a hurry. Straight out and clearing the large bunker on the right are on the agenda, as the fairway runs out into a ravine of bunkers. The other side is fairway yet again dipping down into the green that is sharply undulating on the right. A large bunker complex frames the rear of the green, which even extends down the right side from the ravine.

The Meade Seventh
Approach shot territory
The green

The Meade Eighth is a 545 yard par 5. Water cuts in after the tee with sand creeping up the banks on the other side. It’s a nice look but shouldn’t really come into play unless the tee shot is weak. Dog legging left, the fairway breaks in a couple spots, signaling to the golfer where each shot should land as he moves closer to the green. The green is a bit larger than the Seventh but not by much and while the apron before it allows for longer shots into it, accuracy once again reigns supreme above all else, even if it means one needs to lay up.

The Meade Eighth
The starting stretch of fairway
Approach shot territory

The Meade Ninth is a 171 yard par 3. The clubhouse squarely in the background, that pure blue water off to the right and all the different shades of green glistening in the rays of sun and dancing softly with the wind. It’s a nice scene and our final chore on this nine is a forced carry to the green, avoiding the right at all costs even if it means ending up in the rough on the left. It’s a large green and very much feels like a respite from the shotmaking challenge of the prior holes. There may be those we know sitting in the clubhouse or on the patio watching and this hole does what it can to make sure we all look good at the finish before our fellow man.

The Meade Ninth

The Grant holes I played were that nice blend of shotmaking and strategy similar to what can be found at the Sherman. Lots of width and liberal use of sand and water, the grand scale does not let the golfer run rampant, instead using measured focus and allowing an array of angles. Very promising from what I saw.

The Meade holes I played were more traditional with more forced carries and less tolerant of shots off line. More rigid turns and trees encroaching a lot more than we see elsewhere, this nine seems to be where straight is best, even if it means short of our intended target. Looking at Google Earth, however, it looks like this nine starts out wider with large expanses of bunkers before ducking into the trees near the property edges.

Generally, these are all early thoughts the course continues to be built. From my round there in early spring, the various natural settings; from the large water hazards with sand, hills and the main dune to a wooded parkland flatter area; ensure distinction of character and variety. The Sherman Nine felt very balanced in its challenge and paths to the green with great visuals and smooth conditioning. The Grant Nine seems to pair well with Sherman. It seems to be a blend of Meade as well, taking the width and ground contours of Sherman and interspersing with the ball striking challenge of Meade. In all, the course boasts excitingly gorgeous scenery and conditioning while the play is engaging throughout as it ranges in demands and strategy throughout the property. While it remains to be seen how the UL National fits within the South Jersey shore golf scene, the effort to establish itself as a premiere location with national recognition is evident. I’m excited to see how things shake out and am pleased to see more use of the splendid terrain in one of the underrated areas for golf in the country.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Charming and understated with its large porches, an area of quiet and relaxing congregation.

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