One of the greatest golf course stories to ever be told will be how the Union League of Philadelphia saved the tired, beaten Torresdale Frankford Country Club in 2014. The course, designed by one of the greatest golf course architects in history, Donald Ross, had fallen on hard times. Course membership dwindled and the upkeep and changes in the demographics of golf in the area nearly did the course in to potential development.
In came a shining white knight in the form of the most prestigious private city club in the country, the Union League. Founded on the principles of Abraham Lincoln in support of preserving the Union during the Civil War, this patriotic club could not fathom the demise of this historic course. So begins the history of The Union League Club at Torresdale, adding another new chapter in its already steep lineage.
The club started as two Philadelphia golf courses, the Torresdale Golf Club, created in 1896, and the Frankford Club, started in 1897. Only a few miles apart from each other, the courses acted independently and were two distinct nine-hole facilities for nearly a quarter of a century. This was long before the Roaring Twenties and the golf course boom; it was the infancy of golf in the United States.
In 1921, the Torresdale Golf Club purchased the current property and built a new nine-hole course. At around the same time, The Frankford Club outgrew their location and began to search for a new home. Before you knew it, these two star-crossed lovers decided there was only one way to be happy, and the clubs were combined.
Sometimes things happen for a reason, and other times it is about being in the right place at the right time, but signing Donald Ross to design the new Torresdale Frankford Country Club was genius. At the same time, a new clubhouse was constructed and the good times continued for 86 years before the club started to struggle.
Today, nearly $8 million in renovations turned The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale into one of the best facilities in the region. Through the Union League, a new life has been added to the club, drawing its membership from all over the Philadelphia area. This, coupled with the existing club membership from Torresdale, has created a healthy golf environment.
The Union League secured Stephen Kay, a golf course architect with a wealth of experience restoring Tillinghast-, Ross-, Travis- and Emmet-designed courses. He has restored more than a dozen Ross courses in his career. Kay changed the fairways, some of which were 30 yards wide, back to the original 40 yards Ross created. Trees, many of which were added in the 1960s and ’70s by overzealous Torresdale committees, have been removed or pruned.
The League used its incredible ability to attract the best talent in Philadelphia, including Sean Palmer, director of golf, and Sandee Cataldi, club manager. Many of the leadership and staff at the Union League helped see the course through its transition. It is one of the most exciting developments in golf in the Philadelphia area.
Global Traveler’s annual Advisory Board Meeting took place Sept. 16 at the Union League, where key economic data was reviewed for the year, trends were discussed and debated, and voting for the Airline and the Hotel of the Year was held. Earlier in the day, we teed up at The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale amid the continued construction as they raced toward the opening of the clubhouse on Oct. 7. Christopher Ottuanick, Mark Lane, Wayne Tallman and Mike Donahue comprised the first group, as I followed with Edward Jefferson and Carlos Cappuccio.
HOLE 1 | 343 yards, par 4
There was a severe slope from front to back on this green, which meant putts from the back would roll off unless the ball hit a ball mark or some other obstacle. Kay cut the sod when designing, labeling each piece and rebuilding the green to soften the surface without losing character. Then, and this is key, the pieces were reassembled in order like a puzzle — in this way you achieve the softening without ending up with a boxy look as the grass re-establishes itself. Each piece connects to the other as a unit. Shifting these pieces would be visible even when the green grows back and matures.
This is a great starting hole, and big players can reach the creek before the green — consider a 3- or 5-wood from the tee box. My drive plowed through the fairway and landed not too far from a bridge that crosses the creek. A little out of my comfort zone, I pushed my little chip right and landed nearly out of bounds and near the lovely new driving range. A short chip saved me, and I walked away with a bogie.
HOLE 8 | 505 yards, par 4
A great deal of work has been completed on this hole, including the removal of trees behind the green that blocked the view of the clubhouse. Donald Ross’s original design had the green positioned before the creek. The creek now runs in front due to the 1963 widening of Grant Avenue that changed hole 17 from a par 3 to par 4. With that, members wanted a little more length, and the green was moved.
From the tee box, you can now see the green, which is below the fairway. Kay’s team reset the fairway so this view is now possible; many holes were tinkered with in an effort to recoup levels that had sunk over the years. Fortunately, there are a plethora of photographs, including 1939 aerials, which helped renovators restore the course close to Ross’s original plans.
You really need to be ever so slightly left of center on your drive and then you can reach the green in two. I made it clear to Carlos and Ed this was the plan, but I hammered my drive on the right side, placing the “white house” on the fairway in play. Our caddie, Michael, thought I had enough clearance to lay a fairway wood on the ball and sculpt the shot to the green. As soon as I hit the ball, I could tell it was a keeper, landing on the front collar. I 2-putted to par. Michael informed us Hole 8 is considered the most difficult par 4 in Philadelphia.
HOLE 17 | 207 yards, par 3
This is the famous hole turned into a par 3 due to widening and construction. Both Carlos and Ed played this so well, I felt it deserved a place in the review. Carlos teed up with a fairway wood and took dead aim and landed on the collar of the green. Ed took another route, landing over the green but then chipping to within 6 inches of the cup. I, on the other hand, hooked left leaving a long chip and 2-putt for bogie. Carlos and Ed high-fived Michael in celebration.
HOLE 18 | 400 yards, par 4
A great finishing hole, it was spectacular to see the clubhouse as you turned toward the green. This is another difficult par 4 that requires real target golf. From the tee box, fire away, trying to land a little right of center so you have a clear shot to the green. My drive was a little left, which caused me to inadvertently favor the right side of the green, bouncing off and into the rough. Carlos shanked a drive right, but our intrepid caddie found the ball, and he was back in business. Ed played it safe, hitting three shots to the green before putting out.
Kay enlarged this green back to the original Ross design. Greens were reduced over the years due to fuel rationing during World War II and later when Triplex mowers came into fashion in 1969. Hole 18 is a difficult hole and can ruin your scorecard. Kay says, “If you want to score in the 80s, you best need a bogie on 18.”
There are additional holes that should be covered, so perhaps a revisit to Torresdale is in order as all the improvements establish and mature.
The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale
3801 Grant Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19114
el 215 637 7500
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