God, country, golf, in that order. That's one of the slogans for American Dunes Golf Club, the redesigned course opening next spring in Grand Haven, Mich.
"I think most great stories are written from places of great struggle. American Dunes fits in that story line," Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, the man behind American Dunes, said.
Rooney is an Air Force fighter pilot with three tours in Iraq, a PGA professional, and the founder of Folds of Honor, an organization that gives scholarships to children and spouses of fallen or disabled service members.
His family owned Grand Haven Golf Club for 20 years, but was struggling. Grand Haven is significant for him, as that's where he came up with the idea for Folds of Honor, and he wanted to keep the golf course running.
"I really had it in my heart to save it," Rooney said. So, he went to one of the greatest golfers of all-time, Jack Nicklaus, with an idea.
Nicklaus loved it, and even waived his $3 million design fee, according to Rooney.
"I love the game of golf, but I love my country even more," Nicklaus said in a 2019 news release.
Nicklaus, Rooney and their teams got to work, transforming the course, taking out trees, and opening it up. In all, Rooney said nearly 100 acres of trees were taken out.
Nearly two years later, American Dunes is scheduled to open in May 2021 with 100% of the profits going to Folds of Honor
More than golf
When coming up with the idea for American Dunes, Rooney said he had one major thing in mind.
"We did it to preserve the birthplace of Folds of Honor, to provide.a place of healing and hope for our veterans, and allow people to come and discover our mission, hopefully make contributions and join our squadron," he said.
One main goal for the course, according to Rooney, is for people to remember those in the military, the "less than 1% of this country every day who puts on a uniform and says they're willing to die for your freedoms."
The only way into the course is through what Rooney said is the called the Folds of Honor Memorial.
"You'll actually walk in the boot prints of soldiers who have been killed in action whose families are Folds of Honor recipients," Rooney said. "So incredibly powerful. This will be the most reverent entry experience in the world of golf, and people will really understand when you come to American Dunes why the place exists, and freedom is not free."
At 1300 hours, 1 p.m. every day, the golf course will pause. Taps will be played across the course, and a bell will toll 13 times, in honor of the 13 folds that bring a folded American flag to its shape.
"The whole place will really shut down for a couple of minutes," Rooney said.
Each hole will also have one of Nicklaus' 18 Major championships alongside a Folds of Honor recipient.
Bell also has a special connection with American Dunes and Folds of Honor.
Both of his step children, Hannah and Blake Davis, are Folds of Honor scholarship recipients. Hannah has even gone around the country telling her story, and that's how Bell met Rooney.
In December, 2018, Rooney called Bell to talk about joining the American Dunes team. Bell has worked around the country, including helping add a course and lodging at Manistee National in Michigan.
One of his favorite things about the course, is the benefit people around the country will see from golfers.
"Someone is going to play here, and it's going to benefit a child in California, in Texas, in Maine, that will never speak about their parent they lost," Bell said. "There are thousands of kids and spouses out there who will never say a word, but they'll get the benefit of playing golf.
Folds of Honor, as Rooney said, was born in West Michigan, and the first event was held at Grand Haven Golf Club.
Rooney was flying home from his second tour of duty in Iraq, and when his flight landed in Grand Rapids, the pilot said they were carrying the remains of Cpl. Brock Bucklin, who had been killed in Iraq. On the plan was Brock's twin brother, Cpl. Brad Bucklin. Rooney watched Brad walk with the flag-draped casket to meet Brock's family on the tarmac, including Brock's young son, Jacob.
About two months later, Rooney said they held a little golf tournament at Grand Haven Golf Club, which raised about $8,500 with 67 people showing up. That was the inspiration for Folds of Honor.
Jacob Bucklin went on to become the first person to get a Folds of Honor scholarship in 2007.
What to expect on the course
Course General Manager Doug Bell and Rooney are incredibly excited about what golfers will get when they play the course.
Bell said the piece of land is small, only about 146 acres in all, and with the trees that were removed, it really opened up the course.
"Parts of the golf course are so wide open that you feel like you're at Arcadia Bluffs or Erin Hills in some spots," he said. "You can see forever, golf being played on nine different holes."
According to Bell, there are two different features for the course. You leave the clubhouse and you're in a flat, parkland setting. He called it a "soft start." Then, you get dunes for 16 holes.
The vision for the course changed after Nicklaus' first visit. According to Bell, Nicklaus has been on site about 10 times already, more than his typical courses. He and his lead architect, Chris Cochrain, have been working closely and are dedicated to the course.
For Rooney, who was a 12-year-old and wanted to create his own dream job of being a fighter pilot and golf pro, it's been amazing to watch the course get built.
"I watched the GOAT (Greatest of all time) literally design every contour on that golf course, by hand," Rooney said. "What has been created will take its place when we open, rare air as far as rankings and the quality of golf experience."
Bell said that he thinks when people get to the 3rd hole, cameras will start coming out. Holes 1 and 2 are great, Bell said, but there's a "wow" moment on the fourth tee box.
On top of the course, there will be a Squadron bar and, eventually, a 16-room lodge .
"Our restaurant-bar is insane. We've literally replicated a fighter squadron bar," Rooney said. "The drafts of Anheuser-Busch products actually come out of an Aim-9 missile behind the bar, stuff people have never seen in their life. You go to drink a hand-cramping cold Budweiser while sitting in ejection seats."
Eventually, Rooney thinks this will become a golf destination and pilgrimage for golfers around the country, and possibly the world. Bell has done interviews with a Scotland magazine, and on Black Friday, they shipped gear to 17 different states.
"The golf is just ridiculously high-quality. I love the fact that it's public. It's for the people, by the people," Rooney said. "I think people are going to enjoy all the elements that really bring this symphony together. Whether that's walking through the memorial, the impact it has, playing the golf, the 1300."
American Dunes is scheduled to open to the public on May 3, 2021, and reservations for tee times will be available Dec. 15.
Rates will be $150 for 18 holes during the summer, and $100 in October. Active military and veterans will pay $100 for 18 holes and junior golfers 17 and younger will cost $75. You can play 9 holes after 3 p.m. for $100 in the summer, $75 for active military and veterans and $50 for juniors.