Dan Rooney’s knack for turning inspiration into action has positively impacted thousands of lives.
In 2006, the decorated F-16 fighter pilot, who served three combat tours of duty in Iraq and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, was aboard a flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids when it was announced that the plane was carrying the body of a fallen soldier named Cpl. Brock Bucklin, who left a young family behind.
That resonated with Rooney, who still serves as an Air Force reservist, and the experience compelled him to do something.
Rooney soon founded a charity, Folds of Honor, above the garage of his home in Broken Arrow, Okla., with the purpose of providing educational scholarships to the spouses and children of fallen and disabled military service members. The charity’s first fundraising event was held at Grand Haven Golf Club, then owned by Rooney’s parents, in the summer of 2006. Bucklin’s son, Jacob, became the first Folds of Honor scholarship recipient in 2007.
Since then, the organization has awarded nearly 35,000 scholarships worth more than $160 million to the dependents of military members who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Just over a decade later, Rooney learned that Grand Haven Golf Club had fallen on hard times. His parents were contemplating selling the property to developers.
Rooney, a PGA golf professional, couldn’t stomach the thought of that happening. Instead, he envisioned a place that would commemorate the birthplace of Folds of Honor, provide golf’s most patriotic experience, give back to military families, and inspire others to join the Folds of Honor Squadron.
Rooney pitched his bold idea to golf legend Jack Nicklaus, who won a record 18 major professional championships before launching a second career designing hundreds of golf courses. Nicklaus jumped at the idea and waived his usual $3 million design fee, and more than two years of extensive renovations commenced.
Rooney renamed the course American Dunes Golf Club after the original Grand Haven course closed in 2018. His vision became reality on May 2, 2021, with the grand opening of American Dunes. By then, 11,000 tee times had already been sold and Golf Digest ranked it fourth on its annual list of the nation’s top new courses. This past January, Links magazine included the course among the top 10 Must-Visit Public Golf Destinations for 2022.
Today, American Dunes has committed its profits to be donated to the Folds of Honor organization. Future plans include a 16-room lodge.
“There aren’t many golf courses you play on which you’re going to shed a tear,” Rooney says in a video on the PGA of America’s website. “American Dunes is going to tug on your emotional heartstrings.”
The tugging begins soon after visitors arrive. The only way to enter the property is through the Folds of Honor Memorial Wall, an open-air tunnel of 8-foot-tall walls featuring inspirational messages and plaques with stories of soldiers killed in action whose family members are Folds of Honor scholarship recipients.
The boot prints of those honored on the wall are cast in bronze on the ground.
Each hole features two plaques — one honoring each of Nicklaus’ 18 major championships, and the other telling the story of a fallen service member.
The sand is the star of the course, which plays 7,213 yards from the back tees. The course covers 148 acres and has been returned to its original landscape from long ago, with dunes wandering throughout the property. The track features more than 30 true bunkers, along with many dune features and expansive fairways. The greens are generous and very fair to players. A massive American flag, which golfers need to play around, sits in the center of the fairway between holes 9 and 10.
Carts feature state-of-the-art speakers, Bluetooth connection, and a video screen with a GPS system that gives the yardage to the hole. Coming out of the speakers are messages from Rooney, Nicklaus, and those who have benefited from Folds of Honor scholarships.
“We’ve received rave reviews on the course itself, from both the general public and golf journalists,” says American Dunes General Manager Doug Bell. “Average golfers say it’s extremely playable. They really enjoy navigating through all the sand, and while there’s a handful of challenges, it’s not as hard as other Jack Nicklaus courses. Journalists have said to us that the rugged dunes are a challenge, but the course doesn’t beat you up, and it’s a wickedly special course to play.”
American Dunes’ proximity to Lake Michigan enhances the experience. “Golfers can’t see the big lake from the course, but they can hear it and smell it at one point during their rounds, when they’re only about 300 yards from shore,” Bell notes.
Golf at American Dunes usually concludes with a few rounds at its CAVU Squadron Bar, which features two replica F-4 Phantom II jets hanging from the ceiling, depicting Pardo’s Push, one of the most famous aviation maneuvers in Air Force history. Beer taps are built into an actual hollowed Aim-9 Sidewinder missile, the type of weapon often fixed under an F-16’s wings.
Even the restrooms are military-themed, with stalls shaped to resemble an F-16 cockpit, complete with speakers playing the most memorable lines from the films “Top Gun” and “Caddyshack.”
Activity all around the facility pauses twice a day to honor those who have served. Taps plays at 1 p.m. and a bell rings 13 times, signifying the 13 folds it takes for the American flag to reach its triangular shape at the funerals of fallen service members. The National Anthem is played at 5:30 p.m.
“Over and over again, I’ve seen people come here for the golf course but leave with a moving experience they never expected to have because they’re playing for something greater than themselves,” Bell says.
“We’ve had veterans — everyone from people who served in WW II to our assistant golf professional (Nate Fisher) — crying and saluting the flag. Last summer, veterans working in the area began to leave their offices during lunch breaks to come here for the playing of Taps.”
American Dunes Golf Club
Photos Courtesy of Nile Young