Of the hundreds of courses Jack Nicklaus has designed around the world, none possesses as powerful a backstory and as important a mission as the layout he “unofficially” opened late last month at the American Dunes Golf Club in Grand Haven, Michigan.
That’s because there has never been a place in golf quite like it.
Conceived by Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, the decorated F-16 fighter pilot and PGA golf professional, American Dunes was built to be “a safe haven and tribute to the military” as well as a top-notch retreat with a course routed among sand dunes just off the east shore of Lake Michigan. The facility also will serve as a source of funding for Folds of Honor, another Rooney endeavor that provides educational scholarships to spouses and children of America’s deceased and disabled service members. All profits from the club will go to the foundation.
Rooney also hopes American Dunes will raise awareness of Folds of Honor, which in its 13 years has meted out $130 million to 28,000 scholarship recipients.
Finally, Rooney sees the course as a commemoration of the founding of Folds of Honor. It was on a trip there in 2007 – when the course was owned by his parents and called Grand Haven Golf Club – that the idea for that organization was born.
“With American Dunes, we have preserved for generations the birthplace of Folds of Honor as we have created something that will help us help more people,” said the veteran of three combat tours in Iraq. “I also see it making a spiritual game even more spiritual.”
As for the official opening, Rooney says that will not come until May 3.
“Jack hopped into a cart and said he was going to ride around the course for a bit, and (Barbara) said that she wanted to join him. ‘But you have never done that with me before,’ he said. And Barbara smiled and replied, ‘That’s because you have never done a place like this before.’ ” – Dan Rooney
To understand how American Dunes came about, think about the founding of Folds of Honor. “I was traveling to Grand Haven, and at the end of a commercial flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids, (Michigan,) with a fallen service member aboard, God called me as I watched a family receive their loved one on the tarmac,” Rooney said. “That’s when the idea of Folds of Honor was born. Two months later, we held our first event there. Sixty-seven people participated, and we raised $8,500.”
Folds of Honor grew from there, and a decade or so later it was prospering. But Rooney’s parents were getting older and thinking of what they would do with the Grand Haven golf facility. “We could have plowed it under,” Rooney said. “Maybe build houses on the property. But I am the king of crazy ideas and began thinking of other things we might do. That is how the concept for a Folds of Honors course came to be.”
The next step was figuring how to execute that idea. Rooney turned immediately to Nicklaus for help. “We set up a meeting, and I shared my vision with him,” Rooney explained. “We talked for about three hours, and he loved what I had in mind. He asked a lot of questions. At the end of the conversation, we shook hands, gave each other a hug and said, ‘Let’s get at it!’ ”
Getting at it meant having the Golden Bear revamp the entire golf course. “And he agreed to waive his usual $3 million fee to do that,” Rooney said.
Construction began in March 2019 and Rooney described it as a total renovation, with Nicklaus turning what had been a tight, tree-lined course into a linksy sort of layout that took advantage of the dunes and sandy soil on the property – and the wind that blew off of the lake.
The finished course measures 7,213 yards from the tips but is designed to accommodate golfers of all ages and abilities. Fairways are wide, and it boasts a total of 30 bunkers. The logo is a Golden Bear with stars and stripes, and accommodations will be offered in the form of a 16-room lodge called the Camp, with each room honoring a different branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
There also will be a lower-level area called the Bunker, where golfers can gather for refreshments – adult and otherwise – when their games are done.
“On the way from the parking lot to the clubhouse entrance, we will also have a Folds of Honor memorial in the form of a 9-foot tall, open-air tunnel with a cement walk that features the boot prints of soldiers who have been killed,” Rooney said. “That means golfers who come there to play will literally be walking in the boot prints of those soldiers the club and the organization are there to honor.”
It was easy to sense the emotion in Rooney’s voice as he spoke about American Dunes, and he talked quite openly about that. But he was quick to point out that the place had that effect on everyone who visits.
“Barbara Nicklaus was very involved in the project as well, and I remember one time when she came up here on a site visit,” said Rooney. “Jack hopped into a cart and said he was going to ride around the course for a bit, and she said that she wanted to join him. ‘But you have never done that with me before,’ he said. And Barbara smiled and replied, ‘That’s because you have never done a place like this before.’ ”
Fact is, no one had. Until Dan Rooney came along.
Top: Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, Barbara and Jack Nicklaus at American Dunes Photo: Brad Jacobus
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