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Mission of Nicklaus-designed American Dunes: Raise military awareness, help Folds of Honor Foundation

The 503 yard par 4 16th hole at American Dunes Golf Club in Grand Haven, on Monday, September 28, 2020. American Dunes is scheduled to open to the public in early May of 2021.

MIKE MULHOLLAND/MLIVE.COM

By SCOTT DECAMP | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: October 2, 2020

GRAND HAVEN TOWNSHIP, Mich. (Tribune News Service) – Once Jack Nicklaus and Lt. Col. Dan Rooney simultaneously uncorked ceremonial tee shots on No. 10 Tuesday at American Dunes Golf Club, the new course was christened.

Rooney’s vision for his property had come to fruition, thanks in large part to the charitable contributions and imagination from one of the all-time greats in the game – none other than the Golden Bear.

A Nicklaus Signature course on the grounds of the former Grand Haven Golf Club, American Dunes officially opens next May. But this was the opening ceremony, full of pomp and circumstance, boasting a “massively unapologetic” American flag and dripping with patriotism.

Doug Bell stood near the 10th tee box, the U.S. flag waving in the background. He could not help but get misty-eyed when asked what it all meant to him. Bell is the facility’s general manager, but he’s got so much more stake in the game.

His wife Ann’s grown children, Hannah and Blake Davis, lost their father when they were very young. First Lt. Jeffrey Davis died 22 years ago in a Black Hawk helicopter accident at Fort Bragg, N.C., during routine maintenance work. The Davis siblings' college educations were covered by scholarships through the Folds of Honor Foundation, whose mission is to aid families of fallen or wounded veterans by providing 10,000 scholarships annually worth $50 million.

American Dunes is the place where people like Bell, the Davises, Nicklaus and Rooney merge with a like mission in mind. It’s the location where Folds of Honor was born in 2006, a noble cause established by Rooney, whose parents owned the former golf club on the property. It’s a “mystical” place, in the words of Nicklaus and Rooney, with beige dune sand and green bentgrass complementing the red, white and blue theme.

American Dunes is billed as a destination course, but it’s promised to be an experience unlike any other: “When people come here, they’re going to play the most heroic round of golf they’ve ever played,” Rooney said.

“It’s a different mission. One-hundred percent of our profits will be donated to Folds. This is an avenue to funnel money (for Folds of Honor scholarships),” Bell said. “Twenty-five hundred requests last year went unfulfilled from kids and spouses who needed it to assist their education. When we sell a T-shirt – when we sell a beer or a cold pop or a hamburger or the greens fees, this is going for something different.”

American Dunes' $150 greens fees will benefit people just like Hannah and Blake Davis, whose lives were changed for the better by the Folds of Honor program.

Hannah Davis, 25, graduated from Michigan State University and she is employed by Southern Tide in Greenville, S.C., as a signature store business development specialist. She’s also shared hers and her brother’s personal story on behalf of Folds of Honor at numerous events.

Blake Davis, 24, graduated in May from Ferris State University with a degree in Professional Golf Management. For his first job, he landed as an assistant golf professional at Spring Lake Country Club, right around the corner from American Dunes.

Like Nicklaus and Rooney, Blake Davis believes American Dunes could be a “magical” place. He said it will be far from the average round of golf, and much different from other destination courses such as Arcadia Bluffs.

“It’s not going to be just going out there and enjoying the golf course; it’s going to be for a really bigger cause and I think it’s going to really be ingrained,” he said. “It’s hard to see it and not be impacted by everything that’s going on around you.”

In the words of Rooney, echoed by Nicklaus, a constant reminder to patrons of the public golf course will be: “Freedom isn’t free.”

According to Rooney, the only way to the clubhouse will be through the memorial, which will be ready for the grand opening celebration next May. At 1 p.m. each day – 1300 hours military time – “Taps” will be played and a bell will toll 13 times, audible across the course and signifying the 13 folds that bring the U.S. flag to its triangle shape. Everything at the course will stop for 2 \u00bd minutes each day at American Dunes, Rooney said, to remember the sacrifices made for this country’s freedoms.

Rooney said there will be many layers to the American Dunes experience, which he believes will touch people’s hearts. In terms of the course’s design, Nicklaus said the clubhouse area is not representative of the rest of the layout – the dunes and topography grow more visually stunning the further out.

About 1,000 trees were removed from the grounds in order to open it up and uncover the natural dune-sand base. Many of the trees that remain serve to fence in the property and give it a private feel, Nicklaus said.

American Dunes features 30 bunkers, but they are not the star of show: That would be the dunes, which over the years were blown ashore from Lake Michigan only a few-hundred yards away.

Five sets of tees will be available, four of them named after military terms: Jet (7,213 yards), Valor (6,701), Freedom (6,102) and Honor (5,533). The forward tees will be named “Bear” for obvious reasons, and the course measures 4,754 from those.

The longest hole is the par-5 No. 13, which plays 673 yards from the tips. The shortest hole is the par-3 No. 4, which plays 91 yards from the forward tees.

“When people go over the hill on (the par-4) No. 11, we are kind of easing them into the experience and you go up over this blind shot on No. 11 and it takes your breath away,” Rooney said. "It’s a spiritual, emotional moment when you can look out and see six different holes from that point – all traversing through the dunes – and I think there are going to be moments out here that take your breath away.

“I’m with Jack, I think the place plays with such an awesome cadence from long to short to big greens to small greens, it’s so memorable.”

Nicklaus did not serve in the military — he and wife Barbara were married at 20 years old and started their family – but he’s long admired those in the Armed Forces. As much as Rooney reveres Nicklaus for his golf career, Nicklaus respects those like Lt. Col. Rooney, an F-16 fighter pilot with three combat tours in Iraq.

There’s a reason Nicklaus did not hesitate to say yes when Rooney traveled to Florida and pitched the American Dunes concept, or why his Nicklaus Design company waived its fee on this project. In Nicklaus' words, “I love the game of golf, but I love my country even more.”

“I always loved what (the military) did. I loved what they represented and did to protect our freedom and to give us the opportunity (in this country),” he said. "I’ll say it all over again, freedom isn’t free. To be part of that, when Dan came down to ask, I knew there was no way I was going to say no.

“He started out, he was going to give me a three-hour spiel. (Nicklaus said to Rooney), ‘You don’t need that. We don’t need that big, three-hour spiel. We just need to know what you want to do and we’ll go do it.’ And I was very honored that he asked me to be part of it. When we got here, we were blown away by how good a piece of property it was, and here we are.”

Also in the works for American Dunes is “The Camp,” a 16-room lodge that features 12 staterooms on the upper level and four suites on the lower level. A social area called “The Bunker” will be located on the lower level, and it will feature a full bar, pool table, Golden Tee arcade game and multiple televisions.

For Hannah and Blake Davis, as well as their mother and stepfather, American Dunes seems to complete their story. The fact that a legend such as Nicklaus jumped on board makes it movie-like. Blake Davis said that Rooney had a term for it: Serendipity.

“It’s very special being here,” Hannah Davis said. "I was very lucky enough to have been helped being raised by my stepdad, Doug Bell. He’s an incredible man. He’s so authentic and he’s so hard-working, and I know that Maj. Dan saw that in him and knew that he wanted him here on his team.

“The fact that my stepdad walks through those pro shop doors every day and walks past the flag that once lay over my dad’s casket and works toward a legacy for my dad and works to remember my dad and to help raise money for kids just like his own, I think that’s so special. I think that American Dunes has really brought my family’s personal story full circle and I’m so excited to see what this place will do for families just like mine in the future.”

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