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January 2021

American Dunes

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The Tradition of Honoring Our Service Members

By David Gould

Near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan there’s a point on the map where golf’s tradition of giving back intersects with America’s reverence for military service—especially when that service exacts a steep personal cost. The crossroads is called American Dunes Golf Club, a newly completed Jack Nicklaus Signature design in the town of Grand Haven, Mich.

It’s the inspiration of a PGA golf professional who is also a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter pilot, the inimitable Lt. Col. Dan Rooney. Known in golf and military circles as the founder and tireless champion of the Folds of Honor Foundation, Rooney grew up on this acreage as the son of course-owning parents. Their family business was called Grand Haven Golf Club and its bones lie beneath the visually stunning new layout, designed by Nicklaus at no charge, as an act of patriotism.

The Folds of Honor Mission: “Honor Their Sacrifice. Educate Their Legacy.” 

The first-ever fundraiser for Folds of Honor was held at the original course, which adds to the aura of American Dunes and was an appealing idea to Nicklaus as he listened to Rooney’s request back in the summer of 2018. An investor group is behind the project, the sole purpose of which is to fund Folds of Honor, a nonprofit that supports the families of fallen and disabled military personnel. Over its decade-long run, Folds of Honor has distributed 29,000-plus scholarships to military families, totaling $140 million.

If there is any golf facility in the U.S. that represents what marketing experts call “the experience economy,” it’s this one. Every arriving player proceeds from the club’s parking lot into a tunnel-like passageway lined on both sides by tributes to military families who’ve been aided by the foundation. “You don’t actually see the golf course until you’ve been through the tunnel,” says general manager Greg Bell. “When you emerge, it’s stretched out there in front of you. Most people get a lump in their throat coming through the tunnel, then they get dazzled by what they see when they come out.”

Playing the course, you will notice on each hole that one of the Golden Bear’s 18 professional major championships is cited, alongside a tribute to one of the fund’s scholarship recipients. The club logo is a silhouette of the longtime Nicklaus symbol, the Golden Bear, with the stars and stripes of the American flag fitted into that shape. “The trip from the clubhouse to the first tee is about 200 yards,” Bell says, “so if you’re riding you’ll be shown a welcome video featuring Jack and Dan, reinforcing the mission of American Dunes and dropping in video snippets with kids from across the U.S., who express thanks for how Folds of Honor has impacted their lives.”

Other unique touches include a poignant daily custom of calling a brief pause to all activity at 1300 hours, including play on the course. It’s a three-minute opportunity for reflection and gratitude, while the sound of a bugle playing “Taps” emanates from speakers throughout the property. This is followed by the ringing of chimes 13 times. “It’s a moment to remember why we’re all here, and to have in your thoughts someone you may know from among the fallen,” explains Bell. 

Nicklaus made over 10 separate site visits to oversee the grading, shaping, grassing and other fine points of course construction. Again, this all happened without cost to the project. Along with having unparalleled advantages in terms of the core product and promotional energy, the facility differs from most others in its operational and revenue model.

While the predecessor course, Grand Haven, offered a season-pass option for local regulars, American Dunes will be charging green fees for open play only. Daily-fee courses tend to have fairly complex rate structures, based on weekday-weekend, twilight, junior and senior age groups, resident versus non-resident, and the like. This golf course will have a “Patriot Rate” of $150 for 18 holes, which everyone except veterans and active military will pay. Those service people pay a green fee of $100.

“We expect to have a lot of interest from groups, and to handle plenty of tournaments and outings,” says Bell. “But we’ll be pretty unusual in that our rate won’t be adjusted, even for full-field events. Everything that happens here is dedicated to the same, single purpose—supporting the families of those who give the ultimate sacrifice.”

Unlike most daily fee courses, this one is set up to be a merchandising juggernaut. Even before officially opening for business it has realized that goal. E-commerce-enabled, and overseen by head professional, Ian Ziska, who’s won a stack of PGA Merchandiser of the Year honors, the golf shop at American Dunes sells its modified bear logo at a consistently brisk clip. “People generally have a moving experience during their golf day with us,” says Bell. “When they’re in the shop afterward, they are strongly motivated to make that extra spend on a souvenir.” 

Given its location in a much-visited corner of the upper Midwest, the club has an abundance of fine hotels in close proximity. To complement that infrastructure, there are plans to build a comfortable 16-room lodge, known as The Camp, and bring it online in 2022. “We are expecting play from golfers representing about 40 U.S. states in our first full season,” says the club’s director of golf, Doug Bell. “I don’t mean that to sound prideful, I’m just going off the inquiries we’ve received.”

Of course, any golf facility in the country can affiliate itself with the Folds of Honor Foundation, and a vast number of them do. Hosting fundraiser events at any time of the season, but particularly on the Foundation’s super-successful Patriot Golf Day, puts any participating course temporarily on that meeting place where giving back and saluting military service come together.

 

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