Union League Liberty Hill

6,702 yards, 140 slope from the White tees

I didn’t grow up with golf. In fact, there was a time when I knew very little about it. It wasn’t until the end of college that I started playing it casually, as before then I thought all golf courses were private. I became fascinated with the game rather quickly yet law school and living in the city afterwards held off getting into it all that much. Even when I began playing more often, the learning curve of golf courses was rather steep. There was actually a time I was running by a golf course that seemed “different” with how nice it looked and I had to look up which one it was (Merion East). We all have to start some where. The game and course design came to me later in life yet better that than never.

Living in Manayunk in law school, I would drive up and down Ridge and Henry Ave frequently for one thing or another. Driving down Ridge as you near Conshohocken, you would pass a sign for “Texas sized” apartments on your left that I always got a kick out of. I wanted to see exactly how big these apartments were, then feign disappointment that they simply weren’t big enough to actually be considered Texas sized. There was also a golf course near here, tucked in and hidden by curtilage from the road. I took notice, it seemed like a resort of some kind. Maybe I could stay for a night as a getaway. As I became more immersed in the game through the years, I came to learn this was the ACE Club. Gary Player did an instructional show that I watched on The Golf Channel from the course. It looked nice.

About twenty years since the drives down Ridge fantasizing about Texas sized apartments, I turn my car into that hidden course I knew nothing about back then. I knew a lot about it as I made that turn and parked my car, golf bag in tow. I knew about the design and the recent purchase by the Union League. I knew the course it was before ACE Club and who designed it then and what happened to it back then. It seemed as if I knew it all, so I thought, wouldn’t that be nice. So much knowledge, it was really astounding when I thought about it, fully pleased with myself at this point as I was walking in.

Now if someone could just direct me to the men’s locker.

The course started as the Roxborough Country Club, which was designed by Herb Jewson and opened in 1926. The club eventually went under and re-opened in 1982 as a Rees Jones design called Eagle Lodge Country Club. The club was a walkable, fairly nice design by some accounts but eventually it turned from private to public, then closed altogether when purchased by ACE Insurance, who hired Gary Player to completely re-design the course in 2003. And re-design he did, the bulldozers came in and changed the entire landscape from which Player re-routed and designed the current iteration of the course. Known as the ACE Club, it hosted the Exelon Invitational three years after opening, which was hosted by Jim Furyk and also included John Daly, Adam Scott and Sean O’Hair. Player’s design intent was for the course to host professional tournaments and it seemed well on its way. The grounds includes hotel and conference facilities. The club remained as is until the Union League purchase in 2021. While it remains to be seen if any changes will be coming to the course, the practice facilities received a significant upgrade this off season with trackman in each stall. The clubhouse and hotel facilities will likely be upgraded as well.

The era in which this course was designed and built, the early 2000’s, was very much a transition period within the course design industry. Places like Sand Hills and Bandon had already started to transform what was popular and appealing. There was a move away from the tight and confined while the fast nature of greens began to spill out into collection areas around greens, then to wider fairways that boasted the same kind of speed as the greens. This was a way to instill more playability while maintaining the high slope ratings that were expected. Walkability was still a secondary consideration. All of that can be found here. The hilly terrain allowed Player to tilt and slope fairways as well as twist them up or down while inserting a good amount of forced carries. Terrifically scenic throughout, the holes are distinct visually, while most of its structure evokes an aerial style of play. Most of the terrain movement strategy is off the tee, and deciding how to ideally take on the approaches over bunkers, ravines and/or water. There are fun and challenging shots out there amidst the beauty and high level conditioning. Likewise, one can usually find themselves on the greens a bit more than it looks at first blush, but I found most of the interest and character here in the greens. Most are on the larger side with a mixture of bold swales and subtle undulations. They are where most strokes are lost, requiring a lot more study than what is needed from tee to green.

The swing had felt foreign to me for the last couple weeks and I was decidedly in a funk when I set foot on the grounds here. By the time I left, however, the funk was over. Whether it was the realization this could very well be the last round of the year before the harsher side of winter began, I found my swing during the round once again. Rejoice and then, finally, at peace as the inevitable winter cold crept our way, day by day.

The First is a 346 yard par 4 (from the White tees). A bunker hill is off to the far left while a hill side dominates the landscape, leaving the unmistakable impression the tee shot will moves from left to right upon landing. The hillside cloaks the width of the fairway, as well as the proper line to the green, left for those who have been here before. Moving to the fairway reveals all the width and the green, which is essentially level with the tee, making most approaches to it a bit uphill. The entry point to the green is nice and open with bunkers low left and high right. The green falls off towards the rear, creating two multiple tiers that can make putting from one to the next quite the challenge. The theme is set from the get go; getting to the green can be a pleasing generous affair but once on them, the greens focus the strategy and challenge.

The First
Approach shot territory from the left
The green
Looking back

The Second is a 433 yard par 4. Another blind tee shot but this one hints that the fairway isn’t as wide while the bunkers show themselves on either side. The width of the fairway is spent at its first half, then narrows before widening a bit near the green. Downhill all the way yet the green ramps up from the fairway once again feeding right into it with a bunker low left of the green. The green is decidedly two tiered, the higher front and lower rear. Thus far, the first two holes are a nice introduction into the landscape and theme of play.

The Second
Moving down the fairway
The green

The Third is a 571 yard par 5. We’re still on the same line we started on the First tee, which is the upper perimeter of the course, heading towards the Schuylkill River. The tee is on the upper right side while the fairway starts off to the left and moves to the right, back to level with the tees. Bunkers are at the center of the fairway at this point, which is a hillside moving right to left. The fairway narrows at this point and after it, there are two fairways to choose from. The lower left or the upper right. The right offers more room but does have more terrain movement to it than the mostly flat left side. The left brings the greenside bunkers into play but it also gives the advantage of the green movement, which will handle most approaches the right way. Those on the right will need to finesse their approaches and account for that fast right to left movement of the green but is able to use the entire entry point for that purpose.

The Third
Moving up the fairway
Still moving forward
Approach shot territory

The Fourth is a 147 yard par 3. A monster green with lots of width is a bit deceptive. Set on a hillside, the left to right movement will pull many shots off to the right. A trio of bunkers guard the front of the green, which get deeper as they move left, yet another cue at just how much terrain movement to expect on the green.

The Fourth

The Fifth is a 365 yard par 4. What you see is what you get here. The entire hole is below you from the elevated tee. A vast sand waste bunker is at its center with fairways on either side, which then narrows to the upper left corner where the green is located. The concentration of bunkers intensifies as we get closer to the green, as does the terrain movement. The decision from the tee seems to be whether to go for the left fairway, which is tougher to hit but yields a much shorter approach to the green, or the right side, which provides a lot more room but a much longer approach that will have to maneuver over several more bunkers. Just don’t select this hole to finally go straight off the tee, which puts you directly in the desert.

The Fifth
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Sixth is a 168 yard par 3. We see the first longer transition from Fifth green to this tee, which is uphill and more towards the center of the property. There’s a ridge upon which the green is set. Bunkers on the left are below the green while the right side is level with rough then trees, yet some how feels like a more difficult recovery shot from there. The green is draped on the ridge, moving towards its edges front to back and an overall right to left pull.

The Sixth

The Seventh is a 407 yard par 4. The routing continues to be a bit of a challenge in figuring out which hole follows the other. There are multiple sets of tees off to the right of this green and the closest ones are skipped over. It happens a few times during the round, again showing walkability, and the transition from green to tee, is not the biggest priority here. When we get our bearings, a larger bunker at the immediate left grabs our attention. The fairway swishes around it and then back again in front of a couple bunkers on the right further out. After all the swishing, the fairway tightens as it climbs to the green. While it’s visually impressive, both shots to the green are fairly direct and it is once we are on the green so we get some subtlety and thought provoking contours.

The Seventh
Approach shot territory
Approach shot territory, closer
The green

The Eighth is a 337 yard par 4. Now the attention grabbing bunker off the tee is to our right, yet there’s plenty of room to the left for which to maneuver. The green is hiding on top of the hill off to the right, past the bunker. It’s a clever placement and while the approach is blind, it should be a shorter one to a large green with a run off to the left. A pretty cool hole.

The Eighth
Approach shot territory
A closer look
Looking back

The Ninth is a 501 yard par 5. Again side stepping a couple holes and figuring out where to end up, the final hole of the front leads us back to the clubhouse. Water is features prominently, having to carry it off the tee, then a creek separate the first fairway on the left from the second fairway on the right. The second fairway leads to the green, so the golfer has a few options in deciding on his path to the green. The second shot could go to the end of the left fairway, which leaves a pitch over water, or move over to the right fairway, where ground shots can be incorporated. There’s also a good bit of room to consider going for the green on the second shot.

The Ninth
The water in play off the tee
Moving up the fairway
The green

The front nine starts on the upper portion of the property before getting caught up in the interior and ending up on its lower side coming in. A nice visual array of holes. I would rank them 8, 2, 1, 9, 3, 6, 7, 4, 5.

The back nine starts with the 389 yard par 4 Tenth. Heading back out in the direction of the Ninth, a large bunker on the left signals to the golfer off the tee to favor the right, especially with the canting of the fairway towards the bunker. The fairway then gets interesting as it continues straight out and hair pins to the right and back before climbing up to the green. The approach shot can ignore that end of the fairway and go right for the green, however. In fact, most will not be in a position to utilize this interesting shaping of the hole unless out of position off the tee. For its part, the green is an interesting one, placed in a nice hollow at the higher end of the hillside on the right.

The Tenth
Approach shot territory
The green

The Eleventh is a 402 yard par 4. A mostly aerial target hole downhill from tee to green. The tee shot must settle on a hillside before the fairway narrows considerably and leads downhill to a large pond. Most approach shots will carry the pond from the uphill portion of the fairway to the shallow yet wide green. Getting the distance right on each shot is paramount here. Understanding the roll of the fairway and restraining the tee shot, as well as how the drop shot will impact the approach distance among them.

The Eleventh
Approach shot territory
Looking back

The Twelfth is a 194 yard par 3. The right to left movement is deceptive here and in some ways the green plays like a Redan. The angle of the green diagonal to the tree, framed by bunkers side to side as well as high and low form a nicely understated par 3 where placement on the green with respect to the pin is of utmost importance.

The Twelfth

The Thirteenth is a 406 yard par 4. A dog leg left in general, Player enjoyed branching out fairways into assorted fingers and curls, most of which is effective at its visual impact. The golfer may believe there is more room than there actually is in a given area, or be led down a particular path that only leads to a hazard; there is some play here in dazzling up there playing structure. Here, the fairway starts to the extreme lower left and almost boomerangs around the bunker on the left to the green. The fairway then tightens as it moves to the right around the green, which is guarded by bunkers at the front. Feeding the approach in from the front is a nice idea, over those greenside bunkers.

The Thirteenth
Approach shot territory
From the right
Looking back from the green

The Fourteenth is a 185 yard par 3. A drop shot where left is no good and the right side has a short grass run off that flows from the green, then curiously drops down and around to the Seventeenth fairway. The green is multi tiered and moves well from the back to front. I enjoyed how many directions it seemed to move based on the position of the ball. Any pin towards the front or right seem to bring those short grass contours into play on any shot.

The Fourteenth

The Fifteenth is a 374 yard par 4. The hillside moves from left to right while a wide bunker on the right seems to be there for collection. The fairway continues uphill to the green, which is large and feature a sole bunker on the right side. The green moves left to right and using the left side to feed the approach in would be wise.

The Fifteenth
Approach shot territory

The Sixteenth is a 534 yard par 5. The march to the clubhouse starts here. Great tee placement as the fairway is across a ravine and runs at an angle away from us. The tee shot feels as if we are chasing behind, maneuvering over the bunkers yet being sure not to become overly aggressive and end up through the fairway on the high side of the hill. Heading off to the right, the fairway eventually ends altogether at a creek, which must be carried to the get to the green on the other side. The green is surprisingly on the smaller side, yet the run off contour short of it provides more than enough room to miss the approach if you feel it necessary.

The Sixteenth
Moving up the fairway
Longer approach shot territory
The green, from the left

The Seventeenth is a 380 yard par 4. We can see the funneling at the start of the fairway lower right connecting the Fourteenth, which looks cool but is auxiliary for the most part. The tee shot focus is more towards the bunkers on the left while the fairway cants left to right. The fairway narrows at these bunkers, then widens again after them as it climbs to the green. It’s a cool hole and I have no idea why I didn’t take more photos of it. The green was especially worthy of note.

The Seventeenth

The Eighteenth is a 563 yard par 5. The tee shot must carry a small bunker hill, which should be with relative ease. On the other side of the hill, the fairway runs straight before turning left at the water and narrowing to the green. Water is on the right of the green back towards the approach area at the turn of the fairway. A larger bunker left ensures we don’t all steer our approaches wildly away from the water yet there is some refuge long of the green for those looking for bail out area or some margin of error. It’s a fine closer, reminiscent of the Ninth except without the alternative path to the green. A scenic alcove with the water around and clubhouse above, the end of the round has come in pleasing tones. We now scale the Texas sized facilities for the Nineteenth.

The Eighteenth
Approach shot territory
The depth of the green

The back nine is makes use of the lower end and interior of the property. Two par 5’s in the final three holes was a nice leggy finish following some shorter holes honing in on ball striking prowess. I would rank them 17, 12, 16, 15, 10, 18, 13, 14, 11.

Generally, Union League Liberty Hill is very much a modern design in an area known for its classics. Set on nicely moving terrain, the greens are to be commended and impressed the most while the rest of the course provided a lot to take in visually. There were a lot of fun and interesting shots and a few holes I thought were pretty good. The routing, however, was a bit chaotic in the interior and there were times it seemed as if the holes could have been placed differently to improve the overall flow. There were was also a lot of visual dressing that didn’t translate into the structure of play yet could be more for its effect on the golfer in other ways. The setting is tranquil and scenic, the ball striking challenge entertaining and the greens were a joy, all of which makes for a pleasant go round. In many ways Liberty Hill is a modern relic of sorts, which makes it more appealing in my opinion. This design style used to pervade but now is tougher to find. It’s worthy of experience to better understand its place and role in the evolution of where course design is today.

Clubhouse/Pro Shop: Texas sized, with facilities for conferences and the like.