Text: R.J. Weick
Tucked behind the windswept, towering sand dunes on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in Ottawa County, Michigan, where pines have become as characteristic as the maple, beech, and hemlock before them, a golf club is undergoing a shift in direction of its own. Initially carved and shaped into the sandy soil by Bruce Matthews Sr. and Jerry Matthews, the Grand Haven Golf Club has welcomed generations of players to tackle the pine-dense course for more than 50 years.
It quickly established itself as a top public course in the nation and re-emerged as a golf destination when Rooney Golf Group LLC acquired the golf club in 1998. Less than a decade later, it became known as the birthplace of the Folds of Honor Foundation after the Grand Haven Golf Club hosted the nonprofit organization’s first fundraising event in 2006 benefiting families of fallen heroes in Michigan.
Yet, time, as it is often want to do, proved hard on the course as trees began to tighten the fairways and the economic hardship of the 2008 recession lingered on the greens. With an unfavorable prospect of the club as it was headed for bankruptcy, Lt. Colonel Dan Rooney, PGA professional, chief executive officer and founder of Fold of Honor Foundation, and co-owner of the former Grand Haven Golf Club, decided to pursue a vision of reinventing the golf course as a destination that not only honored veterans, but also served as a vehicle to provide support to spouses and children of America’s fallen and disabled service-members.
“[Lt. Colonel Rooney] didn’t want to see it go under and not be a golf course, because it was the first location that an event was held to raise money for a young man whose father was killed overseas in our military service. It raised a little over $8,700 and it eventually turned into the Folds of Honor Foundation that has give more than 20,000 scholarships to date to spouses and children of our military members,” said Doug Bell, PGA professional, general manager of the American Dunes Golf Club in Grand Haven.
“He had this vision of doing something great. He spoke to a few very strong supporters of Folds of Honor and friends of his around the country and they said: ‘Let’s do it. Let’s invest and make this thing a special place,’” Bell added.
Grand Haven Golf Club’s role as inaugural host is a significant one, as the event would go on to inspire the Folds of Honor Foundation and Patriot Golf Day that has awarded nearly $22 million in educational support since 2007. In the course of 13 years, approximately 24,500 scholarships have been awarded, with about 4,500 granted in 2019 alone. Bearing this in mind, Lt. Colonel Rooney turned to long-time supporter of the foundation, Jack Nicklaus, who was named Honorary Chairman of Patriot Golf Day in 2017, to have a dialogue about the idea of reimaging the Grand Haven Golf Club as American Dunes Golf Club.
Though Nicklaus noted at the time he had largely left the golf course design business to focus on charity work with his wife, Barbara Nicklaus, and turned over the design work to his sons and staff, Nicklaus agreed to take a look at the course, according to Bell.
“He flew up with Barbara, took a look at the golf course, thought about it, called [Lt. Colonel Rooney], and asked, ‘the goal of this project is the money will go to charity?’ The answer was ‘yes,’ so [Nicklaus] said, ‘I’m all in; I’ll design you a golf course,’” Bell said.
Nicklaus and Nicklaus Companies LLC team returned the following spring to begin initial planning and design work for an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, with construction and tree removal breaking ground in late March and April of 2019. With an initial vision of transforming the Grand Haven Golf Club course into a user-friendly, high-quality golf experience, Nicklaus and Nicklaus Design began reshaping the land into a layout that players would return to over and again.
“As the project developed and [Nicklaus] made multiple visits, the design shifted a little bit and became a bigger golf course, a longer golf course, while still keeping in mind the average person who enjoys the game from a relaxation standpoint,” Bell said.
The design team, which not only comprised Nicklaus and Chris Cochran, senior designer at Nicklaus Design, but also Superior Golf Concepts and Jon Scott Agronomic Consulting, among others, also pay homage to the landscape, where wind-blown sandy soil is an inherent and unique characteristic to the region. Overgrown and tree-dense, the course has been opened up and left to breathe with wild dunes—or waste bunkers—traveling up along the right, left, or across each hole.
“We took a golf course that was a bowling alley, that was so tight that it was claustrophobic to the average player who didn’t play here every day, and though we haven’t removed every tree from the property, we have removed enough that they opened it up and exposed all of the sand dunes that are in this area,” Bell said. “You can’t play a hole without it coming into play right, left, or in front of you.”
Bell also noted not only are the dunes an exciting element of the design, but also having more space in the layout, which is a movement in course design that has become popular in the last decade or so.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have played some of the best courses in the country—and in the Caribbean—that have come online in the last 10-to-15 years and there is a trend to see more open space, bigger and wider fairways, less trees, and let the elements and wind come into play,” Bell said.
“If we want to make it a little bit fast and firm, we could challenge some people who are pretty good players,” Bell added in reference to the new American Dunes Golf Club course.
By November 2019, major earthwork had been completed with nine holes seeded—six of which had tees, greens, and fairways mowed. Bell noted the club will head into spring with grass growing on nine holes and three additional holes shaped, approved, and irrigated. The three holes are scheduled for seeding first thing in the spring along with the driving range. The remaining six holes were shaped throughout the course of November, December, and part of January by bulldozer and are awaiting approval by Nicklaus in the spring.
“One gentleman stayed behind, the main shaper on the project, and shaped the final six holes. We had a few visits by the architect team and got it to a stage where we are waiting on a visit by Nicklaus in mid-April,” Bell said. “He will take a look at those final six holes and make sure they are how he envisioned them, how he wanted them, and if he blesses them—says to irrigate and seed—it will just need irrigating, handwork to touch them up, seeding, and then letting her grow in.”
Though both course and name will change, Grand Haven Golf Club’s legacy for supporting veterans and service-members—and those lives touched by them—will endure. Historically, the club has featured signage, flags, and brochures commemorating its relationship with the nonprofit organization, and now when the club re-opens as of August 1, 2020 with its first nine holes, it will feature an immersive educational experience that begins the moment players step into the parking lot.
“I’m sure many people came here, played golf, went home, and never realized that this is where it started or even knew about what Folds of Honor was or is; that is just a numbers game. Going forward, there will not be a chance that you can’t. As soon as you pull in the parking lot, you are going to know you are at someplace different,” Bell said.
“When you start to walk to the clubhouse, you are going to walk up through the story of Folds of Honor from its beginnings to current day. You may even be walking in the boot prints of KIAs; you will have plaques on either side of you with names of scholarship recipients; and if a person shows up and didn’t know, they get inside and our staff will take it from there,” Bell added.
The educational experience will also extend beyond the clubhouse out onto the fairway, where each hole will feature stories of military veterans, fallen heroes, service-members, and Folds of Honor Scholarship recipients that will rotate every so often. Bell said the intent is to honor all veterans of all services and branches, with the goal of moving people.
“The plaques will change out and tell a different story so if a person visits multiple times, they will have a different understanding and depth of how Folds has touched the lives of so many kids, wives, and husbands across the country,” Bell said.
“We know people will come for the golf course—in all likelihood it may be [Nicklaus’] last golf course—and [Lt. Colonel Rooney’s] hope is when they leave, they will pick up the phone and call a buddy or family member that has served, or a friend who may have lost a family member in the services and take them out for coffee, beer, or dinner. He wants people to be moved beyond golf,” Bell added.
Weather dependent, American Dunes Golf Club’s grand opening for the completed 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature Course is anticipated for spring 2021. Bell also noted Nicklaus has donated his services to the project along with Lt. Colonel Rooney and his partners, who have decided they will not take anything back out of the project. Once American Dune Golf Club makes a profit, 100 percent of all funds will be donated to the Folds of Honor Foundation.
Bell, who has a personal tie to the foundation through his wife and step-children, who lost their father at a young age in military service and are Folds of Honor Scholarship recipients, said he is excited to have the opportunity to be a part of the American Dunes story.
“I’m excited to be here and steer the ship with our family story and just do all we can for all the other scholarship recipients and families we have met in the last many years,” Bell said. “When somebody is applying for that scholarship, it isn’t because things are all rosy in the family. It’s nice to be able to give back, work long hours, and know it is going to an end goal that is different than in the past.”