Union League National Golf Club
Ask any golfer what their idea of the perfect golf course would be. Most would say some combination of perhaps the two most iconic courses, and most regarded, in America: Pine Valley and Augusta National. If you can imagine that, then you are imagining Union League National Golf Club. The Union League of Philadelphia, which owns Union League National, was founded in 1862 to support President Abraham Lincoln and The Union in the United States’ Civil War.
Located in Swainton, here in Cape May County, and built on the bones of the old Sand Barrens Golf Course, Union League National is mind-boggling and breathtakingly beautiful. It is that good and that special.
The course was reconstructed and completely redesigned by its original architect, Dana Fry, and partner Jason Straka. Fry, one of the world’s best and most in-demand golf course architects, who designed Erin Hills, site of the 2017 USGA United States Open, brought Pine Valley to the Shore with Union League National. With its smooth, rolling fairways, lakes and ponds, and large, tiered sloping greens, Fry’s new UL National will remind golfers, and golf fans in general, of Bobby Jones’ Augusta National home of The Masters every April.
“The course is totally unrecognizable from when it was Sand Barrens,” said General Manager Jacob Hoffer. “Lakes, ponds and creeks, plus vast waste areas and creative vertical elevation all create so much more drama than there was here before.”
“There’s a little of Pine Valley and Calusa Pines, Dana’s course in Naples [Florida],” said Hoffer. “Put them both in a blender and you have the new Union League National. It’s a great course and a sight to behold.”
The central and almost unbelievable feature of Union League National is its signature “Big Fill.” Constructed, literally, from tons and tons of earth that was moved to carve out the course’s newly formed lakes and ponds and creeks, the Big Fill is a mini mountain standing tall at the center of the new property. Inspired by a similar hill built at Fry’s famed Calusa Pines course, Union League’s Big Fill at its highest point reaches nearly 80 feet above sea level, close to twice the height of the one at Calusa Pines. The Big Fill towers over Union League’s three nine-hole courses, each one named for Union Civil War generals Grant, Meade, and Sherman. Among several elevated teeing stations. the most dramatic one may be Sherman’s No.9, a straightaway par 4. There, from the back tees, you shoot down from around 60 feet over a finger of water.
“The Big Fill is the primary, and most prominent, feature of the course,” said Dana Fry. “You can see the whole course from the top. Everything just spreads out underneath you from the summit of the Fill.”
The newest Nine, Meade, which opened in 2022, was the final of a four-year re-imagining. It ends with the original medium sized par 3 shooting right back to the clubhouse, which golfers who played Sand Barrens, will remember. The rest of Meade, in fact the whole complex, is completely unrecognizable. Totally transformed by Fry and Straka with water everywhere and holes with sometimes more than a dozen sand traps and fantastic elevations.
One of the very best examples of scenic, calm, and unique nerve-testing playability is the brilliantly designed par four 8th on Sherman. Teeing up over water to a rising fairway guarded with two fairway bunkers, one short right and the other up and left, No. 8 plays to an elevated green protected by another eight sand traps, most of which sit to the right and below the putting surface. It plays from about 250 yards to only 340; it demands precision with a fairway wood or hybrid that invites and challenges the longer hitters to try to drive with either a driver or 3-wood. The green is slender and slanted with three different levels protected even more with shaved run-offs and slick, steep banks. The two times I’ve had the honor to try, I laid back with hybrid off the tee and then hit about a 50-yard bump-and-run with the 6-iron to get to putt for birdie. The first time I was slightly unsuccessful, coming up only to the front of the surface to roll back into the fairway from the false front. Sherman’s 8th is a true risk-reward par 4.
On virtually every green of UL National’s 27 holes–some of which resemble the 15,000 square foot practice putting green and putting course Thistle Dhu at Pinehurst Resort–two putting at Union League can be a challenge, but a tremendous joy at the same time.
“The putting complexes here are just simply amazing,” said Hoffer. “They’re massive with multiple levels and lots of slopes and some fun banks to putt up and have the ball come back down.
“Sherman’s 8th is just an incredible hole to get to play. There’s probably ten to twelve different ways to play it. I usually drive it or have a bunker shot up by the green.” Hoffer knows his course.
One of my favorite holes to play is Grant’s No.3, a short, pretty, and precarious little par 3 modeled after No.10 at Pine Valley, that course’s most renowned par 3. Though only a wedge to about an 8-iron in length from its multiple teeing stations, players are tested to carry a massive sand waste area and a super-deep sand pit bunker short and left. Grant’s postage-stamp par 3 demands a high and soft iron shot to its small table-top styled, two-tiered green. It’s a terrific hole. A wonderful challenge and great fun to play.
Looking around the entire property is an incredible experience. A long and strategic tree, native grasses, a wetland plants revegetation project still going on, implemented by Jason Straka, have transformed the land to resemble the Sandhills of North Carolina. You can hardly believe that you’re even in New Jersey anymore. Over one million plants have already been installed, including regional grasses and shrubs like bayberry and bearberry. There’s switchgrass in all the sand traps, scrub areas, and all around the course. The aim of all this new growth is to return the property to its naturally forested surroundings and create a feeling that golfers who play courses like Pine Valley and Pinehurst know and love so well.
“It’s kind of like a park,” said Hoffer. “It’s really just incredible to look at even if you’re not a golfer. It transports you a little to a different place and time.”
“Pine Valley and Calusa Pines are the inspiration,” said Fry. “The great thing about those two courses, and Pine Valley in particular, is that they just look so natural that they look like they’ve always been there.
“We are very proud of our work at Union League National. …Union League National will take its place as one of the premier clubs not only on the Jersey Shore, but on the entire East Coast.”
Yes, it will. Absolutely.