I’ve played a lot of special golf courses. Pinehurst No. 2, the Links at Spanish Bay and Arcadia Bluffs were certainly great experiences, but also very costly ones that left me feeling guilty when I tried to justify the green fees I paid.
That’s why I experienced sticker shock when I found out what it’s going to cost to play American Dunes Golf Club, a new course in Grand Haven that will have a grand opening May 2 after two years of construction.
The full summer rate for 18 holes: $150.
Call me old-fashioned, but there’s something that still feels exorbitant about green fees over $100.
Then I spoke with Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Rooney, who came up with the vision and spearheaded the effort to build American Dunes. And suddenly the price made sense. In fact, it more than made sense. It seemed like the best bargain in golf.
That’s because 100% of the profits from American Dunes will be donated to Folds of Honor, the foundation Rooney created in 2007 that has provided over 29,000 scholarships totaling over $145 million for the families of deceased or disabled American service members.
“For me, I don’t look at it as a green fee,” Rooney said. “I look at it as the opportunity to change the life of a military family who’s had somebody killed or disabled defending your freedoms. And it feels very different.”
I visited the course in September when Jack Nicklaus, who waived his $3 million design fee, showed up to raise the flag for the first time. The course was still very much under construction, but I could see the beginnings of what Rooney was talking about. When I spoke with Rooney recently about the course, I got an even stronger sense of what will make the course and the experience of playing a round at American Dunes unique.
There are a lot of nice touches that honor service members, but the most striking and solemn touch is the memorial everyone must walk through to enter the course. It features 8-foot tall concrete walls and boot prints cast in bronze of soldiers killed in action.
“It’s just very, very real,” Rooney said, “to look down and see their name and see the year they were born, the year they died and the theater in which they gave their life in, be it Iraq or Afghanistan, and then their family story right next to their boot prints. It’s a really emotional place.”
Every day at 1 p.m., or 1300 hours in military time, golf will pause on the course for a playing of “Taps” and a bell that tolls 13 times, signifying the 13 folds that bring the flag to its triangle shape.
There will be plaques at every hole honoring Nicklaus’ 18 major victories along with the story of a fallen military member.
Don’t worry, it’s not all about sad memorials. Rooney is an F-16 fighter pilot who served three tours of duty in Iraq, but he’s also a PGA teaching professional with a good sense of humor and an easy laugh. Heck, the guy’s call sign is “Noonan.” Appropriately, the club will feature the aviation-themed Squadron Bar, which looks exactly like the place cocky “Top Gun” pilots would hang out.
American Dunes has been so popular that sponsors have lined up to give the course, which from 1965 to 2018 was a tree-lined local favorite known as Grand Haven Golf Club, new life as a rugged dunes course near the Lake Michigan coastline. My favorite sponsor perk comes from Titleist, which donated Pro V1 range balls. That’s a little like letting a teenager use a Corvette for driver’s training.
“Not one penny of Folds of Honor money has been used to construct or operate this place,” Rooney said. “It’s all people stepping up saying, ‘Hey, let’s memorialize the birthplace of (Folds of Honor) and hopefully create an ongoing revenue source to generate more funds for scholarships.’ ”
OK, so let’s talk about the course itself. I haven’t played it but I’ve spoken with people who have and it sounds promising. Rooney said Nicklaus took the project to heart, visited the site eight times and crafted a fun but challenging course.
“He poured it all in and everybody could see that,” Rooney said. “When you have a guy like Mr. Nicklaus pouring it all in, it makes a wake. You kind of get out of the way and sit there in awe and watch him hand sketch every contour on this golf course. And I’ve never designed one with him before, but I’m told that’s not that common.”
Nicklaus borrowed from his influences, like the par-3 12th hole that’s reminiscent of the Cypress Point’s famous 16th hole. Rooney leaned on his own influences as a fighter pilot, saying he wanted the course to play like a wild roller coaster through the sand dunes.
“And it does,” he said. “These dunes are just blown and cut and it’s just really fun. It’s certainly challenging from the back tees, but we didn’t build it to be brutally hard.”
If you want it to be hard, it can be hard. It has five sets of tees, though most will play it at 6,131 or 6,701 yards. But it tips out at 7,213 yards and features the 678-yard 14th hole into the wind that U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland sponsored.
“We tried it,” Rooney said with a laugh. “I can’t get to the fairway over the dunes.”
Sometime soon the course reviewers will arrive, pass judgment and perhaps bestow some rankings and honors. But before any of that happens, American Dunes is already taking flight. Rooney said about 40% of this year’s tee times are booked before the course even opens.
“We pick up the phone and we take a tee time and it’s a 10-minute discussion from the guy from Toledo who’s a Vietnam vet who’s bringing all his buddies up there,” he said. “But this is why he is coming. And that’s when you start realizing that we’ve touched a very patriotic nerve with people who love the game but who love their country as well.”
Then Rooney said something that touched me. He said American Dunes promises to be “the most patriotic round” you’ll ever play. I asked him what he meant.
“Because you’re playing for somebody else,” he said. “Golf is about the most myopic game in the world. But this is a round that you’re going to tee up on behalf of the 29,000 families that Folds of Honor has sent to school. It’s not about you. It’s going to be part of something bigger, to honor the sacrifice of our men and women and educate their legacy.”
Many of us have family and friends who have served in the military. I certainly do. My dad was in the Army and my father-in-law was stationed in England when he served in the Air Force during World War II. Neither man ever draped himself in the flag or crowed about his service but was proud to have done his duty. I respect the hell out of that.
“I think that’s what we’re seeing resonate with veterans but also people who love our country,” Rooney said. “And there’s a lot of those people out there who are seeking refuge or a place that they can come and say, ‘Hey, I love my country. It’s not perfect, but I love my country and I want to come celebrate it within the confines of the game I love to play.’ ”
It’s the kind of thing that makes you think there are more important things than green fees.
“I don’t think people are going to come to American Dunes and ever leave and not go tell 10 people about their experience,” Rooney said. “It’s that palpable and emotional. … And the first four or five things you’re going to tell them have nothing to do with the golf course you just played.”
Or the $150 you spent.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.
The article "American Dunes Golf Club is expensive, but you should be lining up to play it. Here's why." was originally published on https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2021/04/24/american-dunes-golf-course-jack-nicklaus-military-family-charity/