IF YOU KNOW ANYTHING about the prestigious Union League of Philadelphia, it’s that it never thinks small-time. Or enters into an endeavor with anything less than first-class intentions.
That’s how you become the Union League. And why it was recently voted the number one city club in the country by Platinum Clubs of America, for the second time.
Now it’s added golf to its business profile by forming a partnership with Torresdale-Frankford Country Club near the Bucks County border in Northeast Philly, one of the two private facilities that are inside the city limits (along with Bala).
Union League General Manager Jeff McFadden feels the association could become a model for others going forward.
“We envision it being a five-star experience along the lines of a Caves Valley [Owings Mills, MD] or Merion,” he said. “We want to differentiate ourselves from other top clubs in the area.
“We’re pretty excited about what’s going to occur here. And it will continue to evolve.”
It’s no secret that Torresdale-Frankford, like some clubs in these problematic economic times, had been looking for financial relief/assistance for awhile. It had been pursuing a deal with neighboring Holy Family University that would have involved the club giving up part of its land [clubhouse, parking lot and pool]. That would have necessitated building another clubhouse and re-routing the layout. But the two sides could never reach an agreement on the numbers, so the negotiations fell through.
The Union League had first looked at doing something like this about a decade ago. For a variety of reasons the timing just wasn’t right. Not any longer.
On July 1, the management/ownership merger finally became official, with the formation of a new 12-member board that’s comprised of seven Union League members and five from Torresdale-Frankford. McFadden calls it nothing less than a “win-win” for all parties.
“We believe one and one equals three, no doubt about it,” he said. “Look at the demographics of golf and where it’s going. It just makes too much sense. You can see the power of two clubs like this coming together.
“It’s a new era. Being in Philadelphia was very important to us. We’re a Philadelphia institution. I’m a believer in what’s happening along the I-95 corridor. I grew up in North Jersey, and it’s the next Brooklyn. It’s going to be the hot area in the next 25 years. We want to be part of that. So this place is perfect. It’s strategic. We’re going to see remarkable growth….
“We want to do everything right. It’s all about history and tradition. We heard there was talk about blowing the clubhouse up. We would never think about doing anything of that nature. We want to preserve things, restore them, make them what they were. It’s exciting.”
The Union League is making an initial investment of $11 million, with the clubhouse getting a $4 million makeover. The practice range has been totally revamped, and there will be a new building added to allow for state-of-the-art instruction and winter availability. A new member’s entrance is also part of the transformation.
The course closed in early October and isn’t expected to reopen until sometime in June. Stephen Kay, who’s done a bunch of really good work in this region and beyond, is overseeing the updating of a layout that many consider to be nothing short of hidden gem: a Donald Ross design that has greens which can be as treacherous as any he created. It’s a reputation that, with Kay’s input, should only be enhanced.
All details considered, the Union League decided it was an opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.
“It’s not your grandfather’s game anymore,” McFadden said. “It’s not your father’s game. And it’s really not your father’s club. You need to add amenities, to get value for your dues dollars. You want it to be an extra perk, an experience. People are always looking for more. They get sick and tired of doing the same thing over and over.”
Toward that end, the Union League—which was outbid in its efforts to buy the ailing Woodcrest Country Club in Cherry Hill, NJ in 2013—already had the beachside Bungalow Restaurant at the South Jersey shore for its members to use in the summer. This is another move in that direction, and an even grander one at that.
Torresdale’s 150 certificate-holders were grandfathered in as full Union League members; all they have to do is go through the admissions process. McFadden said Torresdale’s members passed the master plan, not the Union League members, which has some 1,000 golfers who belong to other country clubs among its 3,000 members. The Union League passed a resolution approving the move, however, with the support of 85 percent of the membership. “That’s, like, unbelievable,” McFadden noted. Torresdale’s vote was close to unanimous. McFadden said he expects all of the Torresdale holdovers to go through the Union League process. As part of the merger, the Union League also paid off several debts.
The new name, as you might expect, is Union League Golf Club at Torresdale.
“This is a real special place,” McFadden emphasized. “Everyone’s getting something out of it, which is important.
“The [golf] business is tough. It’s so expensive today. It’s no longer just about having a golf club. We’d like people to look back and say it’s a brilliant maneuver. Where else are you going to get 175 acres like this? It has so much of that old character. It’s what golf should be all about. We just want to embrace it, shine it up.”
Much of that will fall on Kay’s shoulders.
“We’re just trying to take it back to what it was,” he said. “We’re redoing the bunkers, and trees will be removed. We’re picking up some yardage, maybe 200 yards. So it’ll be 66, 6,700. But it’s a par 70. So it’ll feel like a 72 that plays 7,000. We’re softening some of the greens, and they’ll all get bigger. We looked at some old photos. Over time, things change. It still has the character that it had. You’re still going to three-putt. But five-putts might be four-putts now.
“We’re going to open things up. It won’t feel as claustrophobic any more. At Llanerch we took trees out and people came up to me going, ‘Wow, it looks like you added 40 acres to the property.’
“I dream a lot. I like to say, ‘What if Donald Ross came back today and saw how a person hits a golf ball? Would he change anything? What are we mowing the greens at, compared to then?’ So it’s a sympathetic restoration. I want to make it the way he’d want, for today’s game. I’m hoping I’d be doing what he’d be doing, if he saw the game of golf that’s being played.”
Landscapes change. So does time. No one will ever know if Torresdale-Frankford could have even survived had the Union League not intervened. What we can be fairly certain of is that the place should only be even better in its updated incarnation. How can it not be? And this is simply the first phase. There are plans for a fitness center, an 18-hole putting green and a golf academy. The possibilities seem almost limitless.
In an era where notable courses have become wastelands, it has to be a heartening sign that maybe all is not headed in the wrong direction.
“For less than you pay at [many top clubs], you get the Union League, you get Stone Harbor and you get Torresdale,” McFadden said. “That sells itself. We understand that Detroit Athletic Club is looking at Detroit Golf Club. You’ll probably see old, vulnerable clubs getting together to make a resurgence. East Lake [in Atlanta] is a good example, although we’re not going to be that corporate. That’s what I think Torresdale is to Philly, a [San Francisco’s] Harding Park. There’s a community aspect to it.
“What you realize is, you make a good decision and good things come out of it that helps everybody. Like keeping Torresdale open, revitalizing it. It’s just part of the story, but when you have something like this here, it adds to the quality of the whole area.”
Welcome to the future.