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GRAND HAVEN, Mich. – American Dunes, the brainchild of U.S. Air Force Reserves Lieutenant Colonel Dan Rooney and the design product of Jack Nicklaus, officially took flight Sunday.
A fan of golf architecture should be forgiven for imagining commonalities between the course itself and many of the missions Rooney has undertaken in F-16 fighter planes.
Before a pilot takes off, the plane first must slowly taxi across level ground before hitting the throttles and blasting skyward. Free to move in new dimensions, the jet can twist and turn as the mission demands, with speed and demands increasing as the plane climbs.
American Dunes has a similar arc. After taxiing across the tarmac for the first three holes through defined corridors and past homes along the perimeter of the property, the layout climbs uphill to the par-3 fourth’s tee. From there, everything changes. The course soars into a newly revealed environment, a joyride of twists and turns through sandy dunes recently exposed by Nicklaus’ design team.
The par-3 fourth hole at American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan, is where the wide-open nature of much of the layout takes off. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
Previously home to the Grand Haven Golf Club, which Rooney’s family owned for more than 20 years, much of the site has been cleared of more than 2,000 trees to reveal the rises and falls of those natural dunes previously hidden in the woods.
Big skies and panoramas have replaced narrow playing corridors – as many as seven holes are in view at once on the back nine – with natural-looking sandscapes seemingly everywhere. In truth, there’s plenty of width and playability off the tee for players who choose the proper tee boxes – after decades of Grand Haven Golf Club being known for all the trees and demands on accuracy they created, it might be hard for its former players to recognize this as the same land.
“Other than sitting on the same site, it’s a complete reimagination,” said Rooney, who three years ago asked Nicklaus to get involved. “And it’s a next-level, amazing design and nothing like the bowling alley, target golf we used to play out here.”
An entrance wall displays a quote by Jack Nicklaus, who designed the new American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
Rooney was speaking at the conclusion of grand-opening festivities that included Nicklaus, Kid Rock, a squadron’s worth of pilots past and present, and a lineup of singers, television personalities and more. It was all to benefit the Folds of Honor, a charitable organization Rooney founded in 2007 to benefit the children of killed and injured U.S. military soldiers. Folds of Honor has since awarded academic scholarships to more than 29,000 children.
Forget the trees, the renovation, the golf altogether for a minute, Rooney would tell you. The mission wasn’t simply to remake an old course. The goal was to raise funds for those kids of fallen soldiers, and in keeping with that, all profits from American Dunes will be donated to Folds of Honor.
To reach the new clubhouse, players will walk through a shrine of sorts, with the images and stories of soldiers who died in service – their boot prints are etched into the pavement. There is a statement by Nicklaus along the walls of the entranceway, declaring, “I love the game of golf, but I love my country more,” in giant letters. There is scripture quoted, keeping in line with Rooney’s faith. There are images of fighter planes and folded American flags (hence the name of Folds of Honor), and of course a giant American flag towering over and beyond the concrete walls from alongside the ninth fairway. The walkway leads to a golf shop full of red, white and blue merchandise.
The walkway into the pro shop displays the stories of fallen soldiers above their boot prints embedded in the pavement at American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
There are more plaques dedicated to fallen soldiers on each tee box. There’s a white cross between Nos. 17 and 18 to further commemorate such losses. The clubhouse restaurant is set up as a fighter squadron bar. The entire place, in many ways, has the vibe of a Fourth of July parade combined with Memorial Day.
Simply put, it’s patriotism with the afterburners kicked on – just the way Rooney likes it.
“I love flying fast for freedom, and obviously Folds of Honor is God’s calling for my life,” said Rooney, who, besides still flying fighters and raising more than a hundred million dollars for charitable causes, is also a PGA of America golf professional. “And any significant thing in my life is connected to the game of golf. To be able to put those attributes all together, and to share that, well … This isn’t red or blue, it’s red, white and blue and a chance to celebrate the attributes that make this country special and that it was founded upon.”
A head cover for sale in the pro shop at American Dunes sticks to the patriotic theme of the new course in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
Rooney partnered with four other investors to establish American Dunes LLC in renovating the layout, and Nicklaus agreed to waive what Rooney said was his typical $3-million design fee. Still, large donations were needed to make the renovation happen, and Rooney is a natural pitchman who was able to garner support. He recently shied away from guessing exactly how much money might be generated by the course for donation to Folds of Honor in the form of operating profits from the course, but if all goes to plan, it should be enough to benefit thousands more children.
As of the grand opening, more than 11,000 players had booked rounds in 2021 to play a new course none of them had seen. And while Rooney said the focus should be on Folds of Honor and not necessarily the layout itself, those players are in for a treat on a layout that stretches to 7,213 yards off the longest tees.
Especially on the back nine, which used to be the front. Nicklaus said Rooney suggested flipping the nines to finish across the best duneland on the property.
After No. 10 takes players away from the clubhouse and the nearby giant American Flag alongside the ninth fairway, the landscape stretches out on the downhill stroll along the 11th fairway. From there, players can see parts of Nos. 12, 13 and especially 17 running alongside, and much of the layout opens even more from there. Gone are the trees, replaced by long views across multiple fairways and greens.
A cross sits between Nos. 17 and 18 at American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. Players are urged to leave nickels in the grass at the cross, a long tradition of pilots at the gravesites of fallen soldiers. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
“He told me it was going to be named American Dunes, and I got here (the first time) and it was totally tree-lined with huge trees,” Nicklaus said. “I went, ‘Where are the dunes? Where are these things?’ And he said, ‘They’re underneath those trees. That means we had to take down some trees. … I’m usually a bit of a tree hugger, and I don’t like to take them down. But in this case, it was the appropriate thing to do.”
First to go were the trees planted in rows over the decades since Grand Haven Golf Club opened in the 1965. Rooney, the son of the course’s owners, knew there was great golf land beneath all that cover.
“This was Dan’s vision, and I said, ‘If that’s where you would like to go, then it’s my job to help you create your vision.’ ” Nicklaus said. “That’s what I do, and that’s what I enjoy doing.”
Nicklaus didn’t set out to build an overly demanding layout – don’t confuse this course with some previous Nicklaus courses built decades ago to test PGA Tour players while vexing recreational players. There are no extremely tiered greens, no overly burdensome forced carries across water. There are ponds, most on the front nine, but thoughtful amateurs can play around instead of necessarily over them.
No. 16 features a sandy cross bunker at American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
That doesn’t mean American Dunes is a pushover. Located near but not on the shores of Lake Michigan, the course can experience substantial winds. The 16th, in particular, is a long par 4 stretching 503 yards off the back tee, playing toward the lake and into the predominant breeze. A stretch of native sand juts across the fairway some 100 yards from the green. But unlike water, players can play from such a waste area, so instead of lost balls, it’s merely lost strokes for those either unfortunate or careless enough to deposit a ball in the brown sand.
Along with the rolling elevation changes, the sandy expanses are the defining features of the back nine. The native sand is extremely soft, almost powder-like, sometimes tough to escape and requiring skill and speed to keep the clubhead moving. There is plenty of room in most cases to avoid the sand if a player thinks, but that doesn’t make a shot from the waste areas any easier after a careless or poorly executed swing.
Besides the rolling duneland, sand – as seen here on No. 10 – is the prominent feature of American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk/Golfweek)
In all, the sandy waste areas and tumbling terrain create a raw, exposed sensation – very different from many of the courses Nicklaus built with plentiful water and nearly wall-to-wall grass decades ago.
“I like to let things evolve,” Nicklaus said. “… Sand is great to work with. If I could do every golf course, the rest of my golf courses, on sand, that would be my choice. …
“It’s all built on sand, so it’s going to drain fast. And we wanted to get a golf course that’s going to play fast (allowing the ball to roll), so even with some yardage it’s not going to play long. And hopefully, it’s fun.”
It all makes for a unique experience for those who might crave a mix of unfettered patriotism and solid golf.
“One thing Mr. Nicklaus always said to me, I want to get you a golf course that’s as good as the cause,” Rooney said. “I think we have that here.”
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