Patriot golf games: Jack Nicklaus' latest gem a tribute to country, soldiers, Michigan

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Grand Haven — When Lt. Col. Dan Rooney walked into the Bear's Club dining room in Jupiter, Florida, in February 2018, for what he now calls a "Hail Mary" lunch with Jack Nicklaus, he didn't spend much time studying the menu.

"The lady comes to ask us what we'd like," recalled Rooney, "And I said, 'I'll have whatever Mr. Nicklaus is having."

They ordered soup and a sandwich with fish, which might not have been caught yet, let alone grilled, by the time Rooney got the good news.

Golf legend Jack Nicklaus and wife Barbara walk through the memorial which leads up to the clubhouse at American Dunes Golf Club.

It took Nicklaus, by the golf legend's memory, "30 seconds" to have what Rooney was having — a vision for a golf course that would play tough, play fair and play fun, but would be about so much more than slope, rating and golf-magazine rankings.

And that's American Dunes, the old Grand Haven Golf Club, which Nicklaus transformed from a tree-lined so-called "bowling alley" into a sandy, scenic paradise just off the coast of Lake Michigan. The lasting legacy here never will be about how many majors it can host, but about how many military families it has helped, and will continue to help.

The club, the three-year redesign which officially opened Monday, is the home of Folds of Honor, which was founded by Rooney in 2007 after the Air Force fighter pilot's second tour of Iraq. It began with a Patriots Day golf outing in July 2006 that drew 67 golfers. Since, it has awarded nearly 30,000 scholarships, 41% to minorities, worth more than $145 million to children of fallen or disabled service members. 

Not one penny from Folds of Honor was used to build American Dunes — it was funded by millions in private donations. Nicklaus, for instance, waived his $3-million fee — but every penny of profit from American Dunes will go right back to Folds of Honor.

Rooney, whose family has owned and operated the old Grand Haven Golf Club for 20 years, could've sold the property to developers, and lived a very comfortable rest of his life. Rounds were down. So was interest in the game. His parents were getting older. And, so, Rooney seriously considered a sale. But, in those tough, late-night conversations around the dinner table, he just couldn't bring himself to lay up.

"They were both an option. There wasn't an option A or B," said Rooney, who's also a PGA professional. "But that didn't sit well with us. We really wanted to save this place.

"Life's about what you leave behind, and leaving a residential development isn't something you want in your eulogy.

"But, this place will be."

The price isn't cheap, at $150 a round at peak times — its $100 for veterans and active military members — but the cause cuts deep. More than 11,000 golfers already have booked tee times for 2021, putting the course over half-capacity for its first season.

From left, Folds of Honor inaugural scholarship recipient Jacob Bucklin, Jacqy Rooney, Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, Jack Nicklaus and Barbara Nicklaus attend the opening ceremony at American Dunes Golf Club on Sunday.

'Red, white and blue'

Nicklaus has designed and built more than 400 golf courses across the globe, including 45 countries and 40 states, with four others in Michigan — TPC Michigan in Dearborn, Wabeek Club in Bloomfield Township, Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor and The Bear in Traverse City. Many in his portfolio have far more prestige, but few have more purpose than American Dunes. Purpose is a key word, Nicklaus said.

"These guys, every time they flew, it wasn't just to fly. They flew with a purpose," Nicklaus said Sunday, during the club's opening ceremony, which was attended by a crowd of hundreds of sponsors, donors, veterans, scholarship recipients, the Budweiser Clydesdales (major donor), fellow golf legend Nancy Lopez and Nicklaus pal Kid Rock. The festivities included a ceremonial first shot by Nicklaus, who was wearing a brown bomber jacket on the tee staring up at a four-plane flyover.

"You're taking away something that you're going to leave here long beyond your golf game, your lifetime, Dan's lifetime," Nicklaus said.

"It will carry a theme and a purpose for many, many years to come."

The money quote came when Nicklaus first took on the project, saying: "I love the game of golf, but I love my country more." That quote is emblazoned on the high, concrete walls of the memorial, which golfers make their way through heading to the clubhouse.

Just about everywhere you look on the property, you're struck by patriotism, starting with the mammoth American flag that flies high between the 10th tee and ninth green. The carts are red, white and blue (and, by the way, also have speakers, with music encouraged); so are the tee markers and the pins. Four of five sets of tees are named Jet, Valor, Freedom and Honor (Bear is the fifth, and shortest, for Nicklaus). On every tee, there's a stone plaque honoring a fallen soldier (next to another plaque, recognizing one of Nicklaus' 18 majors). Between the 17th green and 18th tee is a white cross, to remember the fallen. At the tee, golfers will be presented a nickel to toss in the grass next to the cross — long a tradition at gravesites of fighter pilots ("throw a nickel on the grass, save a fighter pilot's ass"). At 1 p.m., or 1300 hours, every day — 13 recognizes the total folds it takes to make the triangle shape of the flag given to family of fallen soldiers — golf will stop, "Taps" will play and a bell will ring 13 times.

The patriotism theme carries over into the clubhouse and the lounge, where they've built the "CAVU Squadron Bar," which features two replica F-16s hanging above the bar, memorializing the famous and impromptu "Pardo's Push" air maneuver north of Hanoi during the Vietnam War that saved the lives of four soldiers.

"A reminder to all of us," said Rooney, "about serving others before serving ourselves."

A white cross sits between the 17th green and 18th tee at American Dunes.

After the four soldiers from "Pardo's Push" were rescued — the two pilots from the front plane, Bob Pardo and Steve Wayne, were originally reprimanded, but years later awarded the Silver Star — they all ended up in a bar together that same night.

The beer taps at the "Squadron Bar" come out of an Aim-9 Sidewinder missile — which cost $400,000 and, on-duty, travel 2,000 miles per hour — because, well, that's just pretty cool.

Late into Saturday night and early Sunday morning, American Dunes' inaugural guests, including soldiers and family members of fallen heroes, gathered around the bar to tell their stories. Nicklaus has had a front-row seat to some of the most-epic moments in sports, but will have a hard time topping this.

"That's a night," said Nicklaus, "I'll remember for the rest of my life.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Even the bathrooms haven't been overlooked. The stalls are shaped to resemble the cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet, with the speakers playing, on a loop, the best lines from "Top Gun" and "Caddyshack." A 16-room lodge opens in 2022, and will be called "The Bunker" (nice double-meaning there), and have a bar, pool table, Golden Tee and TVs.

Fighter pilots like to have fun, Rooney said, and American Dunes is fun.

But, again, it's fun with a purpose.

"The golf course is just phenomenal," said Rooney, "but when you go play it for the first time, the first five five things you're gonna tell me have nothing to do with the course."

Not everything about American Dunes is going to be everybody's cup of Arnold Palmer ice tea. The locals are losing an affordable golf option, and the course isn't easy, especially if you get out of sand as well as you get out of bed after a night at the Squadron Bar. More than 2,500 trees were removed, to build the dunes. The club isn't shy about its Christian values — "We're not forcing it on anybody, but it's who we are," Rooney said — which can turn some off, as can political bent in this hyper-partisan age, as judged by some social-media comments about pictures posted of Nicklaus and Kid Rock, two outspoken supporters of previous and polarizing president Donald Trump.

To that point, Rooney said: "It's not red or blue, it's red, white and blue."

A view of the flyover during Sunday's opening ceremonies at American Dunes.

'Legacy project'

Getting to Nicklaus to sign on to the project — it's his first Michigan course since Harbor Shores, which opened in 2010, and already has hosted four Senior PGA Championships — was just the first big hurdle for Rooney.

He also had to raise the money, and we're talking tens of millions, because, again, he vowed not to use Folds of Honor to fund the project.

Nicklaus proved a calming voice during that process.

"You've got a goal and a purpose and a really, really good reason for what you're doing," said Nicklaus, who considers this project an extension of his children's charities efforts with wife Barbara. "People will help. People like to help."

American Dunes secured a number of sponsors, including four major partners, donating more than $19 million.

Then there was the course, which Nicklaus said long was an evolving process. He was immediately intrigued by the property, which isn't huge by golf-course standards, but enough to stretch the tips past 7,200 yards at a par 72 — thanks to the monster 678-yard, par-5 13th (there's that No. 13 again; it's prevalent). Nicklaus, and chief design associate Chris Cochran, quickly decided to reverse the original nines, then went to work on sculpting the previously nonexistent dunes. When he first was told the course would be called American Dunes, and then got his first look at the course, he wanted to know where the dunes were. There now is sand as far as the eyes can see, in every direction, from traditional bunkers to waste bunkers, or the dunes. There are some Nicklaus staples, including relatively generous fairways, some elevated tees (especially on the par 3s), and undulating greens that, during the summer and especially once the course eventually grows into itself, will play fast. They already play difficult.

If the golf shots aren't spectacular, the views most certainly will be. At one point during the round, you can stand in one spot and see at least seven holes. Water also comes into play on six holes, as if all the sand in your FootJoys didn't already make you feel like you were at the beach.

The carts have GPS, and the range — included in the green fees — have Titleist Pro Vs, adding first-classes touches to the golf at a course that's about much more than golf.

"The biggest thing for every one of us in life is, are you gonna leave it better than you found it in our short journey that we're all blessed to be here for," said Rooney, the first and only F-16 fighter pilot-slash-PGA professional. "American Dunes is a legacy project.

"The golf is awesome, it speaks for itself, people are gonna talk about that. But that's not what the place is about.

"That's what separates it from any golf course in the world."

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984

American Dunes can play more than 7,200 yards, and plays to a par 72.