Building something big

Features - Cover Story

One of the nation’s revered clubs is a golf newcomer. Why The Union League of Philadelphia is primed to become an industry innovator and leader.

November 8, 2021

© evan schiller

Nobody can replicate the tradition of clubs possessing decades of golf history. With the right people and philosophies, modern versions of tradition can be created.

Nobody can transplant hills. With enough labor and money, a few can be built.

Scott Bordner stands atop a 76-foot, 10-inch hill early on a soon-to-be-sweltering June day and stares at the green turf, colorful plant palettes and blue ponds emerging around Union League National Golf Club. “This is my happy place,” he says.

The view from the hill, which colleagues jokingly call Mount Fry, a reference to one of the course architects, illustrates why Bordner left an incredible position as superintendent at Chicago Golf Club in late 2019 to oversee the agronomics of a bold and supersized vision. Chicago Golf Club is a founding USGA member; Union League National is part of a club with less than a decade of golf experience.

Architects Dana Fry and Jason Straka and the Guartaneed Landscaping team have transformed southern New Jersey land to create Union League National Golf Club.
© ryan barnett

Motivated people are builders, and enduring organizations find opportunities in overlooked markets. Once somebody visits the southern New Jersey hill and meets Bordner’s co-workers, they begin realizing a golf tradition can be built within modern private club parameters.

Bordner is the head superintendent for The Union League of Philadelphia. The Union League has never hosted a national golf championship — or even many local events. The club will celebrate its 160th anniversary in 2022, the same year it unveils all 27 new holes at Union League National, a gargantuan project involving architects Dana Fry and Jason Straka on a sandy, southern New Jersey site five miles west of the beach and 80 miles from Center City Philadelphia. Established during the Civil War to support the Union and the policies of Abraham Lincoln, the Union League operated for more than 150 years as a revered downtown social club within walking distance of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. The club’s motto, Amor Patriae Ducit, translates to Love of Country Leads. A sign displaying the motto greets members at the Union League National entrance.

The Union League is primed to quickly become a private golf leader. Seeking additional member amenities, the club purchased the Donald Ross-designed Torresdale-Frankford Country Club in 2014. Renamed The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale, the course is 20 minutes from The League House, a historic structure occupying an entire downtown block. Ross designed the course in 1920. The famed architect was born in 1872, a full decade after the Union League’s founding.

The Union League added a second golf property in 2017, purchasing Sand Barrens Golf Club, a 27-hole course designed by Fry and Michael Hurdzan. Sand Barrens is now Union League National.

Earlier this year, the club acquired the ACE Club from Chubb Insurance. Renamed Union League Liberty Hill, the Gary Player-designed course is 12 miles northwest of Center City.

Instead of overseeing a team responsible for one course, Bordner leads an agronomy department projected to eventually surpass 100 employees. His team includes experienced and energetic superintendents Patrick Haughey (National), Andrew Dooley (Torresdale) and John Canavan (Liberty Hill). More golf and turf are on the way. Plans to add 9-hole, par-3 courses at National and Torresdale are solidified. And the bosses aren’t stopping at one large, human-created hill. The Guaranteed Landscaping team constructing Union League National moved enough sand and dirt earlier this year to add a 60-foot hill to the course.

“Everybody just kind of looks at it and says, ‘OK, here’s what I think it could be. I want to be a part of it,’” Bordner says. “Building top-100 clubs doesn’t come around that often.”

The opportunity to build and grow is attracting talented turf managers to southern New Jersey and southeast Pennsylvania. Haughey left a job at famed Merion Golf Club to become the grow-in superintendent at Union League National, Dooley left a superintendent role at Berkshire Country Club for the Torresdale job, and Mike Elliott left nearby Pine Valley Golf Club (yes, that Pine Valley) to manage a large equipment fleet and train a new generation of turf mechanics and technicians.

“We hope to be the new Chicago Golf Club, the new Seminole, the new Pine Valley,” CEO Jeff McFadden says. “We’re creating tradition. We’re not living on tradition, and that’s a big change for what makes us attractive. I’m a food and beverage individual who came up on the food and beverage side of the business. What am I going to do at Augusta National? Polish the silverware slightly better than it was before? Or am I going to start an entirely new tradition of excellence, new product, new service, new concept? I think that’s what’s attractive to young interns and college graduates.”


Building golf

The Union League will approach $80 million in revenue this year, according to McFadden. Golf is a major reason for the club’s growth and its entry into the game proved fortuitous. As the COVID-19 pandemic halted nearly all non-essential functions in Center City, golf-related activity at Torresdale and National kept members engaged with the Union League in 2020.

“Golf was our relief valve,” McFadden says. “The more you are diversified, the more you are protected. The more you are diversified, the more you have at risk.”

The Union League wasn’t diversified when McFadden arrived as a 30-year-old general manager in 1998. The club supported facilities for downtown businessmen who enjoyed formal meals and sipping cocktails, but it offered little to women and children. Protecting the club’s future required adding amenities, so the Union League purchased the former Torresdale-Frankford Country Club and immediately invested into significant golf course and clubhouse renovations.

“The clubs that are going to succeed are the ones that are going to be lifestyle clubs,” McFadden says. “The Union League was your grandfather’s club. Our vision is your granddaughter’s club. We’re building the club of the future. We’re not reinventing the club for your grandfather. Golf is such a traditional club sport. Golf, squash, yacht, equestrian are still pretty important amenities and part the of the tradition and activities for private clubs. Moving into the golf world gave us an ability to get a canvas large enough not just to do golf but to do other amenities on the golf campus.”

Selling the golf vision fell to Sean Palmer, a young, energetic Penn State graduate who left a job as a senior assistant professional at Merion to become the Union League’s director of golf. As the club renovated the Torresdale clubhouse in 2015, Palmer managed a temporary pro shop from a structure he called a “tin can” next to the pool. Earlier that year, Palmer walked around the PGA Show in Orlando, repeatedly answering the same questions from peers. “It was the same conversation over and over, ‘Where did you go?’ ‘The Union League.’ ‘What’s that?’”

Six years later, Palmer, who oversees golf programming and strategy at all three courses and serves as the general manager at Liberty Hill, is leading one of the fastest-growing operations in private golf. “In 2015, if you told me we would be sitting here with three golf courses, I’d have thought you would be crazy,” says Union League National general manager Jacob Hoffer, who left a job as an assistant professional at Inverness Club in 2015 to join Palmer’s team at Torresdale. “I don’t know if anybody anticipated the rate that it would grow.”

Observing the success of The Bungalow, a private restaurant the club owned in the beach community of Stone Harbor, New Jersey, and analyzing the surrounding golf market indicated to McFadden, Palmer and other club officials that the demand existed for an elite private course near the south Jersey Shore. In short, families with expensive summer homes had limited golf options. Their search led them to Sand Barrens, a flat public course with an abundance of land. Construction on the three new nines — named Meade, Sherman and Grant after Civil War generals — commenced in 2018, with the club opting to leave a mix of new and old holes open throughout construction.

Initially, club officials wanted to close the course for at least two years as it rebuilt all 27 holes, but a portion of the membership wasn’t enthusiastic about losing golf access for multiple summers. Completing work over parts of five years while keeping holes open during the peak summer months allowed the club to show members progress. The compromise and excitement surrounding new holes led to an altered vision for the land.

“The scope of the project just got bigger and bigger,” McFadden says, “and the scope of the investment got bigger and bigger. But it was all predicated on being successful. I don’t think we would have a golf course of this magnitude and this greatness if we had shut down and tried to build it all within 24 months. We were able to dip our toe in the water and people believed in us. Of course, we had the Torresdale legacy going for us, we had The Bunaglow legacy and people said, ‘We believe in what you are doing.’”

The club parlayed golf triumphs at Torresdale and National to add Liberty Hill, a sprawling 311-acre property with an expansive golf course, hotel and conference center. The three golf facilities occupy spacious footprints, feature unique layouts and aesthetics, and form a triangle around Center City. The Union League has added more than 750 golf members since purchasing Torresdale in 2014, according to Palmer. Total membership exceeds 4,000 and the club has devised a 10-year master plan to invest more than $100 million into facilities.

“We are taking risks that nobody else in the country is taking,” McFadden says. “People all want to do what we are doing, but they don’t have the guts to do it. I speak to thousands of people a year and they say, ‘We’re going to do that, it makes all the sense in the world.’ Then I go back three years later, and it’s, ‘We don’t have the guts to put it all together, we’re going to keep our 18-hole golf course and our ballroom and our restaurant and our pro shop.’”


Building turf teams

Supporting the golf growth requires finding, developing and retaining an abundance of quality employees. When all 27 new holes and the short course are completed, Union League National could require a turf maintenance team exceeding 50 employees. The property encompasses 240 acres thanks to the club continually purchasing surrounding land. Bordner estimates another 60 employees will be needed to maintain Torresdale and Liberty Hill.

That math can be overwhelming. Providing the conditions members expect will require more than 100 total turf employees dispersed across three contrasting sites. Union League National is a sandy site with bentgrass playing surfaces and intricate native plantings; Torresdale is a Golden Age design with bentgrass/Poa annua greens, tees and fairways; Liberty Hill is a 19-year-old course with an abundance of bentgrass.

Bordner’s network helped him fill two key positions and created an unexpected turf reunion. In 2009, Merion hosted the Walker Cup. Director of golf course operations Matt Shaffer had a talented staff with Bordner as a superintendent and an abundance of rising turf managers, including Haughey and Dooley. The enthusiasm extended into the golf shop, where Palmer was learning under golf professional Scott Nye. A decade later, Palmer convinced Bordner to leave a great job for the Union League. Bordner then sold Haughey and Dooley on making similar career jumps.

Haughey spent 11 years at Merion before arriving at Union League National last year. “I did the grow-in at Merion and really liked it,” says Haughey, referring to the club’s East Course restoration. “I saw what was going on here and I really wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to get in on it early.”

Dooley had held a desirable job as the superintendent at Berkshire Country Club in Reading, Pennsylvania, since 2012. “I liked it at Berkshire,” he says. “The members were great to me. It was a good job. I even said to my wife at one point, ‘We could potentially live here the rest of our lives as far as careers go.’ She responded, ‘You don’t want to get anything better? You don’t want to try something else?’ That’s the whole reason I came here. I knew there was a lot of momentum, not only at Torresdale, but with the whole club.”

At Liberty Hill, Bordner has a superintendent with a strong connection to the property. Canavan started working on the site in 1982 — and has never left (see No résumé needed here). Canavan became the superintendent in 1994 and played a pivotal role in the club’s transformation from Eagle Lodge Conference Center and Country Club to the ACE Club in the early 2000s. Canavan has experienced numerous ownership changes in his career and exudes positivity. “There’s such a buzz about what the Union League is doing with their golf courses and their plans,” he says. “They are taking something that was an ‘A’ and making it an ‘A-plus.’ There’s nothing but excitement.”

With three proven, personable and passionate superintendents in place, Bordner has shifted his attention to hiring assistants, technicians, and full-time hourly and seasonal employees. The Union League has already overcome one hiring obstacle: name recognition. The buzz surrounding the club and ongoing construction at Union League National is attracting assistant superintendents and interns from regions beyond Philadelphia. Assistant superintendents Ross Burgess and Ryan Moore learned about Union League National via stunning imagery posted on social media. The opportunity for motivated employees to learn from different personalities and manage grasses in different environments presents recruiting advantages. “The networking opportunities just within this operation,” Bordner says, “should be better than any operation out there.”

A career development and educational program called “Union League University” and opportunities for internal advancement present a recruiting advantage. The average tenure of a Union League employee is 18 years, according to McFadden. “If you look at our hiring, we start with the young folks and we keep promoting from within,” he says. “Buying and building three additional golf courses has given us a lot of room for growth in a whole bunch of areas … golf, agronomy, food and beverage, club management, membership, you name it.”

Competition for hourly employees in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey remains fierce. Hiring challenges are amplified at Union League National because of the seasonal summer tourism season in southern New Jersey. Bordner’s management team at Union League National currently conducts its limited indoor work from a cramped trailer. A maintenance facility is part of the master plan, although Bordner’s preference is to construct onsite employee housing first to help attract seasonal workers.

The Union League of Philadelphia purchased the former ACE Club earlier this year and renamed the course Union League Liberty Hill.
© guy cipriano

“There’s so much money spent here in such a short window,” he says. “We can at least give people six-month work when other places can only give them three-month work. We’re talking about building housing for 36 to 40 employees. To me, that’s more important than the maintenance facility. That will help us bring in people, whether it’s H2B workers or interns.”

Herb Phillips understands the seasonality of the market and magnitude of having a national-caliber private club in southern New Jersey. A southern New Jersey native, Phillips landed a job at Cape May National Golf Club upon graduating from high school and has spent most of his adult life working on the region’s golf courses. He had two superintendent stints and then left the industry for a year to work as a carny on the Wildwood boardwalk. “I would be staring at the beach and ocean thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ he says. “You’re screaming at the top of your lungs for kids to come and play your games. It was wild.”

Phillips heard what was happening at the former Sand Barrens and applied for a job. He’s now Union League National’s irrigation technician. A self-described “irrigation nerd,” Phillips relishes everything about being involved with Union League National, which he considers the “biggest thing to happen in Cape May County, in my humble opinion.

“I’m stoked to be back in golf,” he says. “I felt like as a carny I was doing the same routine day in and day out. If you aren’t that guy, you’re going to want to come back to where you belong. I tell people this is what we do, this is who we are.”

Bordner is also experiencing hiring wins in unlikely places. One of Union League National’s rough mowers is the former CEO of a major corporation who owns a home near the beach.


The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale is a Donald Ross-designed course that opened in 1920.
© guy cipriano

Building a course

Tim Malone is responsible for the crew building the hills. Malone owns New Jersey-based Guaranteed Landscaping, a 33-year-old company with a golf construction division. Anywhere from 20 to 30 of his employees have been at Union League National every workday since construction started Feb. 3, 2018. They are involved in one of North America’s biggest golf construction efforts since the pre-recession boom era.

Malone recaps everything that happens on site in a daily journal. (The recaps are so meticulous he even noted a magazine editor’s visit in the June 23, 2021 entry.) So far, his team has moved more than 1.4 million cubic yards of dirt, relocated “hundreds of thousands of grasses,” transplanted trees from flat areas to human-created hills and crafted 24 acres of ponds to transform a flat site into a stunning golf landscape. Malone communicates several times every week with Fry and Straka, co-principals of Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design. Their Sunday conversations set the construction agenda for the upcoming week. “Even when I’m not here, I’m working on this project,” Malone says. “It’s that big and there’s that much to do.”

The stakes are also high for Fry and Straka — and at least one of the architects visits the site weekly. The Union League selected the pair to guide the work in early 2018. Construction started immediately. “When they hired us, we came in and we had to do some detailed planning,” Straka says. “They were like, ‘That’s great, but we want you to start construction next week.’ From that point 3½ years ago on, it was build, plan, build, plan all at the same time.”

Work started on the holes near the clubhouse, thus giving members instant visuals of the project’s potential. “It’s like building a house one room at a time,” Straka adds.

Calling the site busy might be an understatement. As members play open holes, crews are hauling dirt and sand, shaping features, and installing plants selected via extensive study of the region’s wildlife areas, parks, golf courses and a former military base. Bordner and Haughey’s team are responsible for preparing the course for daily play while growing bentgrass on pure sand. The latter is much harder than it sounds because of how fast water and nutrients percolate through the profile.

Enormous expectations accompany the hustle. “When you’re moving dirt to the extent we are moving dirt, I look at it like a 100-year vision,” McFadden says. “I want to make something world-class. If you look at all three nines, we will be the greatest 27-hole golf course in America. No one set of two nines will outshine the other.”

At times, building can be overwhelming. That’s why climbing hills that didn’t exist a few years ago becomes therapeutic.

“This spring, when guys were getting frustrated and nothing was getting filled in because it was a colder spring, I printed out some pictures from a year ago,” Bordner says. “The before and after pictures … it’s crazy. You have to pat yourself back and see how far you have come to stop the frustration. We want to get there as fast as possible. Sometimes the view from the top of those hills just puts you back into a good place.”

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor-in-chief.