18th at Union League GC at Torresdale 
The Union League GC at Torresdale: Makeover for a classic club and course

By Joe Logan
Published January 24, 2015

If all goes as scheduled, about three months from now, in early or mid-May, the Donald Ross-designed course we’ve long known as Torresdale-Frankford Country Club will stage something of a grand reopening amid hoopla and high hopes.


Along with a new name – it is now called The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale – the venerable club in Northeast Philadelphia will boast a $3 million restoration of its classic-era course, and a $4 million renovation of its stately clubhouse.


The Union League GC at Torresdale is the result of the marriage of two old-line, respected Philadelphia brands: the Union League of Philadelphia, the Center City business club that dates to the Civil War; and Torresdale-Frankford CC, a proud, century-old club that had been struggling in recent years.


The two clubs talked of merging 10 years ago, but nothing came of it.  The members of Torresdale-Frankford weren’t ready.  This time around, facing economic reality, they were.  Torresdale members voted last spring to accept the purchase offer – the Union League essentially threw the club a lifeline – and the deal closed on July 1.


Both the golf community and the private club sector watched with considerable interest.  They are still watching, and with good reason.  Could this kind of marriage of convenience and potential be the solution for other clubs with financial woes?


The Union League thinks so.  "Bringing these two clubs together is the new business model," said Jeff McFadden, general manager of the Union League, as he showed off the planned changes to local media one day last fall.


Former Torresdale members were absorbed into the new, combined club.  Union League members will now have access to a top-quality course with a Donald Ross pedigree. 


McFadden described the "complete facelift" of the Torresdale clubhouse, which had begun to show its age, and the restoration of the course as the first step in a 15-year master plan that will eventually include upgrades to club’s pool and a fitness center.


"My dream is of creating a Cave’s Valley experience with Merion’s history," said McFadden, in his 17th year at the Union League.  Merion needs no introduction; Cave’s Valley is an upscale private club golf outside Baltimore.


Flicker photos


Bausch Collection gallery of Torresdale-Frankford Country Club


Inside Golf interview with Stephen Kay





Overseeing the course work is Jersey Shore-based architect Stephen Kay, who designed several local favorites, including Scotland Run, Harbor Pines, McCullough’s Emerald Links and The Architects Club (with Ron Whitten).  


Kay also has a passion for restoring classic courses, especially Ross courses.  In fact, the project underway at Torresdale is really a continuation and expansion of a master plan Kay began for the club several years ago.   So far, Kay had rebuilt about one-third of the bunkers at the club, in 2008 and 2010.


By the time the Union League GC at Torresdale reopens in May, restoration work should include:


-- Removing about 350 trees, trimming others.  Many classic-era parkland courses in the Northeast have become overgrown with trees that encroach on fairways, restrict approach shots and cast too much shade on greens.  Torresdale is among them.


-- Lengthening the layout by about 200 yards, to 6,633 yards.  Because Torresdale is a par 70, with only two par 5s, Kay is quick to note that the course will have the feel of a 7,030-yard par 72 course, with four par 5s.


The additional 200 yards will be come in 20- and 30-yard increments, largely from moving the tees back on holes No. 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7.


-- Complete the job of rebuilding all the bunkers on the course.  In addition, the sand in all the bunkers will be replaced by a brand of sand called Valley Forge, used by Llanerch Country Club and Philadelphia Cricket Club, among others.


-- Widen fairways, thereby creating new angles into several greens.  The fairways at Torresdale and many older courses began to narrow in the 1950s, according to Kay, when irrigation systems became common.  Because sprinklers could throw water in only 45 feet in either direction, over time fairways narrowed from their original 40- to 60-yard widths to 30 yards, where the grass was green.

-- Soften several greens.  Torresdale is well-known for greens that are pitched steeply from back to front, in some cases with five or six degrees of slope.   That was not a problem in the days when greens were cut at ¼-inch. But today, with better strains of grass, better mowers and greens that run twice as fast, several greens at Torresdale were too unforgiving.  A missed down-hill three-footer could roll off the green.


On the most severely sloped greens, Kay plans to reduce the back to front slope to a manageable three degrees by lowering the back of the greens and raising the front.


-- Expand several greens.  At the same time, on several greens, Kay will straighten the front, restoring the putting surfaces a squarer shape, which was common years ago.


-- Repave cart paths across the course.


-- Enlarge the practice range, plus add a short-game facility.


Modern Restoration


Rounds at Torresdale peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at 15,000 to 17,000 per year.  In recent years, the course has averaged 10,000 to 11,000 rounds.  After the restoration, the goal is to reach 18,000 to 20,000 rounds.


Even when the work is complete, Kay does not claim that it will be a "true" restoration, exactly recreating the 1921 origins of the course.  That, says Kay, would not fit the modern game.


"Are you mow the greens above ¼ inch?" he asked.  "Are you going to mow the fairways at 1 inch?"


For that matter, asked Kay, do we want to take out all the ladies tees, because there were no ladies tees in 1921?  How about the cart paths, because there were no carts, either?   And what about modern irrigation systems, which didn’t appear until about 1950?


"Nobody does that," Kay said of "true" restorations.  "We’re going to do a "sympathetic" restoration.  If Donald Ross was suddenly here and they said, "Hey, Mr. Ross, it’s yours to do what you want over the next three years, I think I am doing what he would do.""






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Joe Bausch[1/24/2015 8:20:08 PM]
Iím thrilled to hear about this project and am anxious to see the course in a few months.
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