“I love the game of golf, but I love my country even more.”
Those words came from one of the greatest to walk a course, Jack Nicklaus. Now those same words from the iconic 18-time major winner will sit in stone at a soon-to-be iconic course right here in Michigan.
Located right off the water in Grand Haven, American Dunes will open in May. A public track that will rival any private course across Michigan and the rest of the country, American Dunes is a signature design of Nicklaus.
The Golden Bear was recruited to the project by Lieutenant Colonel Dan Rooney to help fund the latter’s mission. An F-16 fighter pilot in the United States Air Force, Rooney has logged over 1800 hours of flight time and three combat tours in Iraq. Additionally, he is an accomplished author and a PGA pro who served as the motivational speaker for two U.S. Ryder Cup squads.
Most notably in Rooney’s impressive resume is the nonprofit he founded in 2007, Folds of Honor. Dedicated to providing scholarships to spouses and children of fallen and disabled veterans, Rooney’s cause has handed out over $135 million. A huge fundraising element for the charity has been one of Rooney’s chief loves, the game of golf. Courses across the country hold events, tournaments and marathons annually to raise money for Folds of Honor.
The very first course to ever host an event for the charity and essentially the birthplace of Folds of Honor itself was Grand Haven Golf Club. Opened in 1965, the track was a local favorite and was taken over by Rooney’s family in 1998. However, in the last few years the course started to have financial struggles and Rooney took ownership from his father in 2018.
“Grand Haven had a great 20 year run. People absolutely loved playing there,” Rooney explained. “But it started struggling like a lot of courses. The easy left would have been to just take the money for the land and turn it into real estate. But sometimes you have the opportunity to take a hard right. The hard right was to do something hard, but amazing and really create something special.”
“Not many people know that Folds of Honor literally started at that course,” Rooney continued. “There’s a little plaque by the door. We held an outing in 2007 and raised $8500. It was a catalyst for what Folds of Honor has become. It all started there so I had to save it and do something that was sustainable. That led to my hero, Jack Nicklaus.”
Rooney asked the legendary golfer to consider aiding in a redesign of the space into a completely different golf course with the intention of it being a source of funds for the charity.
“I’m 48 years old, so I grew up absolutely idolizing Jack,” Rooney remarked. “But you know what they say, even if someone is a hero in your mind, your heroes usually let you down. I reached out hoping for the best and was blown away by the results.”
Nicklaus visited the site with his wife, Barbara. The Golden Bear has designed over 400 courses around the globe and usually charges a fee of $3 million to lend his name to a ‘signature’ spot. Additionally, he usually visits a design in person about two times during the process.
For this, not only did Nicklaus waive the fee, but he visited Grand Haven on eight different occasions. He will be there again for the grand opening May 1-2.
“When he saw the site, he lit up,” Rooney said of Nicklaus. “The help and role that he has taken is unbelievable. What started as a redesign is now a complete reimagination. You won’t recognize a thing except for the location. Every piece of turf and topsoil was changed. We deforested over 100 acres of trees and we’re left with this insane, pure beach sand. I watched Jack just go to work. He is responsible for every contour of every hole.
After over a year of renovation, redesign and overhaul, the result is American Dunes. Some of the lucky few who have gotten the chance to review it already have compared it to the likes of Pine Valley and Cypress Point. Sand is certainly in play throughout the round and while many trees were removed, multiple ponds have been added. From the tips it will play almost 7400 yards with a slope of 148 – 151 alone on the back nine.
“I think we have produced a spectacular golf course,” Nicklaus said in a statement. “We have utilized and maximized the natural sand dunes we uncovered, and retained areas of beautiful trees. Playing through and around exposed dunes, as well as tree-lined holes in some places, creates a very special playing experience.”
Three stone plaques will stand next to each tee box. One will represent each of the 18 majors that Nicklaus captured. Another will honor a private donor who sponsors that hole. The construction of the entire course was completely funded outside of Folds of Honor on the backs of specific donations and corporate sponsorship. Rooney has pals in the game outside of Nicklaus who helped chip in. 2019 US Open champ Gary Woodland is one – Rooney officiated his wedding – and one of those sponsor plaques came from the six-time PGA winner who often wears Folds of Honor apparel on the course.
Most importantly, each hole will have a stone telling the story of a Folds of Honor family. Additionally, 13 stones will sit on a dune just off the 18th green representing the 13 folds made in the American flag when it is presented at military funerals – the inspiration for Rooney’s logo. A new stone will be added for every scholarship awarded that year. Also, at 1:00PM (1300 in military time) every single day, the course will briefly come to a complete halt. Taps will be played and a bell will toll 13 times.
In order to enter the course, golfers will walk through an open-air tunnel that will serve as a memorial to soldiers who have fallen. Literal boot prints from veterans who gave their life will be in the ground and stories will line the walls as people enter the clubhouse.
Despite its prestige, the course will always be open to the public, no membership is necessary. Green fees will be $150 – with every dollar of profit going to Folds of Honor. Veterans will get a half-off rate.
“It’s 100% public, for the people and by the people. You can know that every dollar you spend is going to a great cause. This is the most heroic round you’re ever going to play,” Rooney said. “People will be crying walking into this place. You’ll understand why American Dunes exists and remember that freedom isn’t free. It’s God, country and golf, in that order.”
A 16-person lodge will open in 2022 for stay and play packages. A large ‘squadron style’ bar is also ready for opening day, fully stocked with a large selection of beers. Tee times are available starting May 3 with reservations starting in mid-December. A lottery system will determine the first month of tee times.
“If you live in the state of Michigan, prepare for a spaceship to land,” Rooney remarked. “This course is going to be that awesome and unique.”
(written by Timothy Pontzer)