Text: R.J. Weick
It has been said the ultimate symbol of freedom comes from a simple, meaningful act of 13 folds. For each fold of the American flag represents an ideal and a tribute, until its resulting triangle shape becomes a symbol of hope to its bearers and a constant reminder of those who have sacrificed for their country.
Since its inception in 2007 by Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, F-16 fighter pilot and PGA Professional, Folds of Honor has held the folded flag as its logo and at the heart of its mission, in which it provides educational scholarships to families of America’s fallen and disabled service members while on active duty. With a motto of “Honor Their Sacrifice. Educate Their Legacy,” the nonprofit organization has dedicated the last 13 years to fundraising through campaigns such as Patriot Golf Day and providing more than 28,000 scholarships valuing at least $140 million.
In 2007, the inaugural Patriot Golf Day was hosted at Grand Haven Golf Club in Grand Haven, Michigan and after a nearly two-and-a-half-year-long endeavor flying into the wind, Lt. Col. Dan Rooney and Jack Nicklaus, legendary golf course architect and player—fondly known as the Golden Bear—welcomed founders, sponsors, and media guests to a preview event at American Dunes on Sept. 28 and Sept. 29, 2020 to forever mark the birthplace of Folds of Honor.
“I’m thrilled, humbled, and proud the dream of American Dunes is now realized. It is a significant day in Folds of Honor history. I’m grateful to Jack [Nicklaus] and his team for their incredible work,” Lt. Col. Rooney said.
“This represents a collaboration of countless like-minded patriots who want this golf course to forever stand as a tribute to the men and women of our military, a safe haven for veterans who find rehabilitation through the recreation of the game, and a backdrop to celebrate our country and those who fought for its freedom,” Lt. Col Rooney added.
American Dunes, a Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course, is a 7,213-yard, par-72 course sculpted through the iconic sand dunes inherent to West Michigan and the shores of Lake Michigan, with generous, rolling fairways, 30 bunkers, and triple seven bent grass greens. Each hole was carefully designed by Jack Nicklaus and his team at Nicklaus Design and Nicklaus Companies LLC, and reflect an artistic vision on par with the mission behind the American Dunes experience. Nicklaus, who donated his and his team’s services for the project, said it has been a privilege to be a part of the Folds of Honor legacy and the American Dunes project.
“It is an honor to be involved with Lt. Col. Dan Rooney and all the things that he has done and means to this country and the service he has given to it,” Nicklaus said.
Located on the property of the former Grand Haven Golf Club, American Dunes reimagines the former tree-lined facility into a course full of drama and reverence reflective of both its sand base and local topography, as well as its intent as a tribute to the military and a commemoration of Folds of Honor. Each hole not only is named after one of Nicklaus’ 18 major championships and features tees designated “Jet,” “Valor,” “Freedom,” “Honor,” and “Bear;” but also has a plaque honoring a soldier’s legacy and Folds of Honor recipient.
Nicklaus noted the golf course was designed to become more exciting as players move from the quieter, flatter area near the clubhouse.
“We left the trees on the perimeter to protect it and keep the golf course feeling like it was private inside the tree line and then started playing with it: started playing with the routing, started playing with the terrain, and how it flowed. Some of the corridors were there before; some of them are not,” Nicklaus said.
“It was a really fun project and the real fun of the project was knowing what you are doing is going to benefit a lot of families and a lot of kids. Barbara and I have about kids for a long time and when you talk about educating kids of fallen warriors, that has been pretty special to all of us,” Nicklaus added.
Nicklaus noted for the property, making the course aesthetically pleasing was not a difficult task since its natural sandy topography is an ideal medium to grow grass and have long-term, low-maintenance courses—and uncovering the dunes to create a dramatic background on the tees was a matter of artistic look and feel.
“I think we have produced a spectacular golf course,” Nicklaus said. “We have utilized and maximized the natural sand dunes we uncovered, and retained areas of beautiful trees. Playing though and around exposed dunes, as well as tree-lined holes in some places, creates a very special playing experience.”
For Lt. Col. Rooney, there is a moment—just like in most sports where it catches the breath—on the course that stands out to him.
“My favorite moment on the golf course is going up over number 11,” Lt. Col. Rooney said. “It is a spiritual, emotional moment when you look out and can see six different holes from that point all traversing through the dunes and I think there are going to moments out here that are going to take your breath away. I think it plays with such an awesome cadence, from long to short and big greens to small greens. It’s so memorable.”
Lt. Col. Rooney also noted the team was intentional in creating a unique experience at American Dunes where everyone who passes through the clubhouse and onto the grounds will know it is the birthplace of Folds of Honor, have an appreciation that “freedom is not free,” and compelled to make a donation with time or talent to take the nonprofit’s mission forward.
“There will be a lot of people who will want to come play a Nicklaus Signature design. They are going to have a great time here, but we have not completed our mission if they leave here and don’t know really why they came to this site and the reverence of which we have created American Dunes,” Lt. Col. Rooney said.
“We hope—we have a lot of work to do—it will take its place as a truly unique golf experience in all of the world where you shed a tear, you have a lot of laughs, but you understand that less than one percent of this country has the uniform on today and if called upon, they are willing to give their lives for the freedom just enjoyed playing a round of golf at American Dunes,” Lt. Col. Rooney added.
American Dunes will officially open in May 2021 with a formal grand opening and is represented by its Golden Bear filled with stars and stripes, which was inspired by Nicklaus’ statement: “I love the game of golf, but I love my country even more.” American Dunes also has plans to build a 16-room lodge on the public course known as The Camp, which will feature 12 staterooms on the upper level and four suites on the lower level. The Camp will also feature a gathering space known as The Bunker, which will include a full bar, pool table, and golden tee arcade game, among other amenities.
American Dunes will also give 100 percent of the course’s annual profit to the Folds of Honor Foundation.