Honoring fallen heroes through golf

Paul Leahy
At American Dunes, bells ring 13 times throughout the property signifying the 13 folds it takes to fold the American Flag into the triangle.

The Folds of Honor Foundation was established in May 2007, by Lt. Col Dan Rooney, to honor the sacrifice of the fallen by providing educational scholarships from kindergarten through college for children and spouses of fallen and disabled service members. The way the foundation began is quite inspirational.

The club is structured to serve others, with 100 percent of American Dunes’ annual profit given to the Folds of Honor Foundation.

Rooney was flying home to Grand Rapids, Mich. from Chicago after his second tour of duty in Iraq as an F-16 Fighter pilot. The captain announced they were carrying the remains of a hero. Corporal Brock Bucklin was on board and his twin brother was escorting his casket home. The captain asked all the passengers to respectfully remain seated while the flag-covered casket was removed and met by the remainder of his family. As Rooney watched the casket being unloaded and watched Bucklin’s young son walk beside the casket he turned and noticed that over half the passengers disregarded the pilot’s request and left the plane. Rooney pledged that day to spend his life changing the future of America’s spouses and children of fallen and disabled service members.

In 2006, the inaugural fundraising golf tournament was held at the Grand Haven Golf Club in Michigan, a course owned by the Rooney family. A total of $8,500 was raised to support families of fallen heroes in Michigan. Since this humble beginning over 29,000 scholarships have been awarded and $145 million dollars distributed. Currently there are 30 chapters around the country including chapters in St. Louis and Kansas City.  

The Home of the National Folds of Honor Foundation is located in Tulsa, Okla. at the Patriot Golf Club. The Robert Trent Jones, Jr. designed Patriot opened in 2010. The club appeals to a national audience as it has one of strongest national memberships of any club in the country. All of the day-to-day operations of the National Folds of Honor Foundation is done there, a mere four hours from the Lake of the Ozarks.

Jack Nicklaus waived his standard $3 million dollar design fee.

Events to support the Folds of Honor happen all over the country at local golf courses, through Patriot Golf Day, concerts, galas, fun runs, dinners and more. A concert and Freedom Run are scheduled to be held at Camden on the Lake and Osage National Golf Resort on September 17. Come out and support the cause.  You can check out all the events by visiting www.foldsofhonor.org/chapters.

Rooney has never stopped reshaping and evolving the Folds mission and after the great recession a lot of golf courses fell on tough times. The Grand Haven Golf Course was no different, but the Rooney family did not want to sell it. He had a plan, an aggressive and crazy plan to most. He arranged a meeting with legendary golfer and course architect Jack Nicklaus and his wife at their home club in Florida. Rooney laid out his master plan and on the back deck of the Bears Club, an agreement was made. All they had to do was find some friends to back their mission.

What became of their meeting and partnership was the creation of the American Dunes Club, on the site of the existing Grand Haven Golf Club. Nicklaus waived his standard $3 million dollar design fee and he and senior designer Chris Cochran got to work. The club is structured to serve others, with 100 percent of American Dunes’ annual profit given to the Folds of Honor Foundation.  Patriotism is everywhere at American Dunes, “it’s God, Country and Golf in that order,” according to Rooney.  Even the logo is patriotic. The iconic Golden Bear emblem, Nicklaus’ trademark, filled in with the Stars and Stripes.  

“Our logo is a proud representation of what we are, what we stand for, and where we are going,” according to Rooney.    

The only entrance and exit to the clubhouse is through the Folds of Honor Memorial.

The 1965 layout, situated a mere 500 yards from the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, was littered with tree-lined fairways and obstructed views. The property had approximately 150 acres of natural sand dunes waiting to be seen again. Approximately 3,000 trees were removed to open up the landscape and allow the beauty of the dunes come to life. The golfing experience that was created was first rate and the experience off the course will leave an indelible mark on all who play.  

The course itself is a tribute to Nicklaus’s passion and his love of country. The 7,200 yard layout is much different from many of his designs. He wanted the course to be playable for all, and not to take away from the mission of American Dunes — honoring those who served and those that were left behind. Even the tees have significance, as names such as Jet, Valor, Freedom, Honor and Bear signify the different sets of tees players can utilize. Rates start at $150 in season and military discounts are offered every day. Tee times have been in very short supply since the course opened in May of this year.  

The only entrance and exit to the clubhouse is through the Folds of Honor Memorial. You walk through an open air tunnel and in the ground are bronze boot prints of soldiers killed in action. Covering the 8-foot concrete walls surrounding the entrance are their stories and the stories of their families. Inviting guests to learn more about these Folds of Honor recipients and to immediately let you know why American Dunes is here.  

“This is the most heroic round you will ever play,” Rooney says. Taps is played daily at 1300 hours, all players are requested to pay tribute to the fallen as even the carts are programmed to shut down during these few minutes. Bells will ring 13 times throughout the property signifying the 13 folds it takes to fold the American Flag into the triangle.  

Gary Woodland, PGA Tour Professional, is a sponsor and advocate of Folds of Honor. He sponsored the Par 5, 13th hole at American Dunes. Each hole will display a plaque and a story of a Folds of Honor recipient.    One of Nicklaus’ 18 majors will also be recognized as well as the benefactor who contributed funds for construction. Golf carts are equipped with GPS, which double as a monitor that play videos and talks about the mission of the Folds of Honor Foundation while players traverse the course. A massive American Flag sits in the center of conjoining fairways of holes 9 and 18.  

As you sit at the bar enjoying your beverage and taking in the military artifacts, including the fuselage of an F-16 hanging from the ceiling over the bar.

The mission is not complete until the end of your round when you add your score up and have your favorite beverage at the Squadron Bar. Anheuser-Busch is a significant Folds of Honor contributor and the beer taps pouring your favorite Budweiser, are built into a hollowed Aim-9 Sidewinder missile. These missiles were commonly found under the wing of Rooney’s F-16 aircraft during missions. As you sit at the bar enjoying your beverage and taking in the military artifacts, including the fuselage of an F-16 hanging from the ceiling over the bar, you can reflect while sitting in an actual ejection seat of a fighter plane. Your round means more than normal today, you helped out children and spouses of a fallen or injured service member.  

American Dunes is special for me because my son is an Air Force Officer and my friend of over 30 years, Doug Bell is the general manager. I can’t think of a better or more qualified person to be intrusted with Rooney’s vision. Doug’s family has lived it and benefited from the generosity of the Folds mission.

Doug married Ann Davis in 2000 and she had two small children, a one-year-old boy (Blake) and a three-year-old daughter (Hannah). Ann’s husband, 1st Lt. Jeff Davis, had been killed in 1998 in a helicopter crash while serving in the U.S. Army. Hannah received a Folds of Honor scholarship to further her education at Michigan State University. Blake did as well, attending Ferris State University following in the footsteps of Doug at his alma mater. Hannah’s involvement with the Folds of Honor started with a speech to the Michigan PGA of America. She attended their spring meeting and told her story and the story of her father Lt. Davis. Another PGA Professional in attendance asked her to speak at an event in Detroit and eventually Hannah was invited to share her story in front of 1,000 people at the Memorial Day annual gala at the Folds headquarters in Tulsa. Hannah was then asked to join the Folds of Honor speakers’ bureau and she continues in that role today. She and Rooney formed a friendship and in 2019 Doug received a text message from Rooney wanting to meet to discuss an opportunity. That meeting turned into an offer to run American Dunes.  

“We made a wonderful connection. All the stars lined up and this was a great opportunity for both Ann and I to move to Grand Haven. It was kind of meant to be.” Doug states.  

American Dunes has just started its mission and in 2022 The Camp will open for lodging on property. There will be 16 staterooms featuring each branch of the service and bring another unique and inspirational amenity to the property.  Other initiatives that will be undertaken is the formation of programs for veterans as studies have shown golf can be beneficial for those who suffer from forms of PTSD.  

Doug has been a PGA Golf Professional for over 30 years and has had opportunities to oversee several construction projects, which helped to fuel his desire to make American Dunes so special.

“The long hours of working as a golf professional mean something different now,” he said. “If what we do is successful, which I believe it will be, then the long hours are helping pay for a scholarship for a young person or spouse that had something tragic happen in their life. It will help that family keep a loved one’s memory alive and honor their sacrifice. The long hours and weekends away from family will mean something more now.”

Lt. Col Dan Rooney.

Michigan has some great golf courses so when planning your next golf vacation look into making the American Dunes Golf Club part of that adventure. I can’t wait to visit myself, to see my old friend, and experience this special place. I am sure most who play remember their day at American Dunes, as it is not just a golf experience but an emotional, patriotic experience that can only be created here, the birth place of the Folds of Honor. Tee times, additional information and a patriotic journey through the course can be found at https://americandunesgolfclub.com/.  

God Bless America and God Bless American Dunes and the mission of the Folds of Honor Foundation.