Course for a cause

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Soaring on the wings of promise, a ‘crazy idea’ transforms a longtime Michigan golf landscape into American Dunes.

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June 2, 2021

Every penny of profit at American Dunes will fund the education of children and spouses of U.S. soldiers killed or injured in combat.
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Lt. Col. Dan Rooney had a “crazy idea” and managed to arrange a meeting in Florida with his boyhood hero Jack Nicklaus. Rooney’s first attempt to get there from Oklahoma resulted in a flight diverted to Augusta, Georgia. Like most golf enthusiasts, he would take that to be a positive sign. The second attempt resulted in a few hours of sunshine-blessed conversation on the back deck of The Bear’s Club. The meeting ended with an agreement for Nicklaus and Rooney to find some friends and go all in on an unprecedented mission. American Dunes had launched.

Soaring on the wings of promise, American Dunes is structured to serve others: 100 percent of American Dunes’ annual profit will be given to The Folds of Honor Foundation, a 501(c)(3) dedicated to helping fund education for the dependents of military soldiers killed or disabled in combat. Established by Rooney in 2007, the foundation honors their sacrifice by educating their spouses and children from kindergarten through college. And similar to providing an education at every level, American Dunes is designed for play at every level. Course plans evolved in some beautifully unexpected ways.

Groundwork

Located in Grand Haven, Michigan, the site of American Dunes has been a golf property since 1965. Originally, it was The Grand Haven Golf Club, designed by Bruce Matthews Jr., and recognized for years as one of America’s finest public courses. In 2006, the Rooney family became owners and operators. The first Folds of Honor fundraising event at Grand Haven hosted 67 golfers and raised $8,500. Folds of Honor was on its way.

Like so many other properties, though, business started to decline following the Great Recession. Some tough choices had to be made about the course, but the Rooney family was reluctant to abandon the home of Folds of Honor. Joe VerDuin was brought on as the superintendent in April 2018. Plans changed shortly after that.

“I was hired to work for the Grand Haven GC and it was the right time and right place for me,” VerDuin says. “When I learned the redesign was going to take place, I committed to seeing it through.” Nicklaus started planning, waived the standard $3 million design fee and engaged Chris Cochran, senior designer at Nicklaus Design.

Due to the ethos of Folds of Honor and having previously met Rooney, Cochran looked forward to working with him. Upon the initial site visit, Cochran found a tightly tree-lined golf course. Preliminary designs were based on a low construction budget and the plan was to widen the corridors, make minor routing changes and raise the holes that would flood every spring due to a high-water table. “Since all the greens were push-up, we would redesign the green complexes and regrass the course, but we had to preserve the majority of the irrigation system,” Cochran says.

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Cochran and Rooney toured the site after some of the initial clearing and Rooney thought it looked great. However, with the site situated entirely on premium dune sand, he wondered if the course could be opened up and become more naturally exposed. Cochran explained it was possible, but more budget would be necessary to clear more trees, do more shaping and install a new irrigation system. Rooney found the necessary funds.

Rooney has written a bestseller “Fly into the Wind” (with a foreword by David Feherty). The book is about how your response to challenges can positively shape your life. This was one of those challenging moments and the choice to make everything as outstanding as possible to match the worthiness of the cause proved prescient. With their new marching orders, “Jack became even more excited,” Cochran says, “and that’s when the course really started to gain an identity we could run with.”

Taking flight

The varied terrain excited everyone involved with the project.

Summer rounds run $150 at American Dunes, with deep discounts for veterans.
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“There are dunescape holes and parkland holes,” VerDuin says. “The ride of being on the parkland holes and then heading through the dunes and back again is a golf experience unlike most. The surroundings complement each other.”

The course’s current form reflects changes in golf course architecture and player preferences.

“The old golf course was a great example of where golf was in the ’60s,” Cochran says. “Heavily tree-lined with a penal design and an emphasis on hitting it straight. Preferences today favor more open, strategic design with an emphasis on visuals.”

Every bit of turf was excavated. Acres of pine, beech and oak trees were removed, which helps the course drain better. Clearing the trees allowed for much better wind movement and now sunshine blankets the grass. “Weed and disease pressure is greatly reduced, and improved turf quality makes the course much more fun to play and easier to manage,” Cochran says.

“The project got a lot bigger than any of us initially planned,” he adds. “Special thanks to (contractor) Superior Golf, (shaper) Doug Graham and VerDuin, who were so flexible in their thinking and attitude during construction that we could create what we did with so little money in such a short period of time.”

Rooney, an Air Force fighter pilot (call sign “Noonan”, the nickname bestowed on him by fellow pilots as he’s the only known PGA professional/fighter pilot, and yes, it’s a “Caddyshack” reference), will never forget an early onsite visit with Nicklaus. “Jack said to me, ‘You have no idea what you have here. It’s truly a magnificent site,’” Rooney says. “The whole place is reverent and we can’t wait for everyone to visit.” There was a lottery for tee times when the course opened in May and it is staying busy.

With Grand Haven being a popular Midwest vacation destination complete with quaint homes, a boardwalk and a beach, and with the course located just 500 yards from Lake Michigan, it’s an amazing course in a fun destination. Not everyone is on vacation, though: The maintenance crew is hard at work.

Jack Nicklaus loved the project so much that he waived his standard $3 million design fee.
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All systems go

With 18 people, the maintenance team is fully staffed for the summer. That includes VerDuin, two assistants, an equipment manager, four full-time and five part-time seasonal workers, and five full-time summer workers. An internship program is expected to launch in 2022. “We always mentor future aspiring turfgrass managers and two of our staff are pursuing careers in turf management,” VerDuin says.

American Dunes has roughly 150 acres of natural sand dunes, 43 acres of tees and fairways, and 3½ acres of greens. “Much of our focus goes into mowing, spraying and irrigating given the amount of bentgrass,” VerDuin says, “and a challenge is the way the grasses intermingle. We have areas where fescues meet bentgrass. There is a fescue island in the middle of a tee. The challenge comes with each of these grasses needing different amounts of water, fertilizer and herbicides.”

The dunes complexes cover another 50 acres. The challenges there are keeping the weeds out, determining what gets raked daily and what doesn’t, and watering just enough to keep the sand in place but the fescue playable. “Overall, we have a strategy, but it will change as the property evolves,” VerDuin says. “There’s no track record,” which makes this season both fun and challenging.

“Doing what I love, combined with the inspiring mission of American Dunes, brings purpose and passion together for me,” VerDuin says. “This maintenance team is humbled to help introduce this experience to the nation.”

Before Jack Nicklaus and Chris Cochran led the redesign, the course carried a 1965 Bruce Matthews layout.
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Serving and honoring

The only clubhouse entrance and exit is through the Folds of Honor Memorial, a commanding open-air tunnel. Nestled securely in the ground are bronze boot prints of soldiers who have been killed in action. Their stories — and their families’ stories — cover the 8-foot concrete walls, flanking guests and encouraging them to learn more about these Folds of Honor recipients.

“We will immediately let people know why American Dunes exists — to raise awareness and raise funds for Folds of Honor. This is the most heroic round you will ever play,” Rooney says. Guests aren’t playing for themselves but for someone else. To date, more than $145 million has been distributed by Folds of Honor to 29,000 recipients. “Once you are in the Folds family, we got you,” Rooney says.

The foundation checks in with recipients once a year to make sure the required GPA is being maintained but also, if someone is hurting, they can “intervene and get them the necessary support to keep students in school and moving forward,” Rooney says. “Forty-one percent of the scholarships have been awarded to minorities. As we fight our way to better equality, education is the only lasting way to get there.”

Every hole will display a plaque and the story of a Folds of Honor recipient. Also recognized at each hole will be one of Nicklaus’s majors and the hole benefactor who contributed funds for construction. For instance, Gary Woodland sponsored the 13th hole, which is a massive par 5 playing 678 yards from the back tees.

A summer round runs $150 with a deep discount for veterans. Accommodations will be available on site in 2022. The Squadron Bar is open now, serving cold Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch is a significant Folds of Honor contributor.) The beer taps are built into a hollowed Aim-9 Sidewinder missile, often found under the wing of an F-16 fighter jet, one of the many types of aircraft Rooney expertly flies.

Folds of Honor’s headquarters are at The Patriot Golf Club in Owasso, Oklahoma, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., where “Taps” is played daily at 1300 hours, as it is at American Dunes. The melody, stillness and gratitude are profound. American Dunes has a massive, resolute American flag in the center of the conjoining fairways of holes 9 and 10, with a local rule — it’s an unmovable obstruction. There are so many ways American Dunes unabashedly delivers its message. It is glorious and gravely humbling.

“This project was extra special because of the cause and because so many people stepped up, sharing their enthusiasm and support for our armed services, our veterans and our country,” Cochran says. “The donors have been incredibly generous. People like Jon Scott, our retired corporate agronomist, who freely gave advice and negotiated preferred pricing from the vendors. His help was huge. Doug Bell, the GM, did a great job with project management and he was always a pleasure to work with. This was truly a team effort.”

During that initial meeting at The Bear’s Club, after Rooney presented the concept and mission of American Dunes, Nicklaus asked some hard questions, mostly operational and financial. Understandable, necessary. And now, Rooney and Nicklaus are making the most of blessed opportunities to better the lives of others. Cochran, Bell, VerDuin, the crew and many more have all contributed and continue to do so.

Lee Carr is a Northeast Ohio-based writer and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.