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Jack Nicklaus’ new American dunes take flight with lots of sand and unapologetic patriotism

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GRAND HAVEN, Michigan – American Dunes, the brainchild of U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Dan Rooney and product design by Jack Nicklaus, officially took off on Sunday.

A fan of golf architecture should be forgiven for imagining some commonalities between the course itself and many of the missions Rooney undertook in F-16 fighter jets.

Before a pilot takes off, the aircraft must first taxi slowly over level ground before pressing the throttles and exploding skyward. Free to move into new dimensions, the jet can twist and turn as the mission demands, with increasing speed and demands as the aircraft climbs.

American Dunes has a similar arc. After rolling across the tarmac for the first three holes through defined lanes and past the houses along the perimeter of the property, the trail climbs up to the start of the fourth par 3. From there everything changes. The course soars into a newly revealed environment, a twist and turn ride through sand dunes recently exposed by Nicklaus’ design team.

The fourth par 3 hole at American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan, is where the wide open nature of much of the route takes flight. (Jason Lusk / Golfweek)

Previously home to the Grand Haven Golf Club, owned by the Rooney family for over 20 years, much of the site has been cleared of over 2,000 trees to reveal the climbs and falls of these natural dunes previously hidden in the woods.

Large skies and vistas have replaced narrow play lanes – up to seven holes are visible on the back nine at a time – with natural-looking sandy landscapes seemingly everywhere. In truth, there is a lot of width and playability off the tee for players choosing the right tee boxes – after decades the Grand Haven Golf Club is known for all the shafts and precision requirements they’ve created. , it might be difficult for his former players to do so. recognize it as the same earth.

“Other than sitting at the same site, it’s a complete re-imagining,” said Rooney, who asked Nicklaus three years ago to get involved. “And it’s an amazing next-level design and nothing quite like the bowling alley, the target golf course that we used to play here.

An entrance wall displays a quote from Jack Nicklaus, who designed the new American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk / Golfweek)

Rooney was speaking at the end of the inaugural festivities which included Nicklaus, Kid Rock, a squadron of pilots past and present, and a range of singers, TV personalities and more. This was all for the benefit of Plis d’Honneur, a charity founded by Rooney in 2007 to benefit the children of killed and wounded American soldiers. Folds of Honor has since awarded scholarships to more than 29,000 children.

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Forget the trees, the renovation, the golf for a minute, Rooney would tell you. The mission was not simply to redo an old course. The goal was to raise funds for these children of fallen soldiers and, in accordance with this, all profits from American Dunes will be donated to Folds of Honor.

To reach the new clubhouse, players will walk through a sort of sanctuary, with the images and stories of fallen soldiers on duty – their boot prints carved into the sidewalk. There is a statement from Nicklaus along the walls of the entrance, stating: “I love golf, but I love my country more”, in giant letters. There are scriptures quoted, consistent with Rooney’s faith. There are images of fighter jets and folded American flags (hence the name Folds of Honor), and of course a giant American flag towering beyond the concrete walls along the Ninth Fairway. The walkway leads to a golf shop filled with red, white, and blue merchandise.

The walkway to the Pro Shop features the stories of fallen soldiers over their encrusted boot prints on the sidewalk of American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk / Golfweek)

There are more plaques dedicated to fallen soldiers on each tee box. There is a white cross between the numbers 17 and 18 to further commemorate these losses. The clubhouse restaurant is set up as a fighter squadron bar. The entire place, in many ways, has the vibe of a 4th of July parade combined with Memorial Day.

Simply put, it’s patriotism with the afterburners turned on – just the way Rooney likes it.

“I like to fly fast for freedom, and obviously Folds of Honor is God’s call for my life,” said Rooney, who in addition to always stealing fighters and raising over a hundred million dollars for charitable causes, is also a PGA of America Golf Professional. . “And everything that matters in my life is golf. To be able to put all these attributes together, and share that, well… it’s not red or blue, it’s red, white and blue and a chance to celebrate the attributes that make this country special and on which it was based. “

A headgear for sale in the American Dunes Pro Shop sticks to the patriotic theme of the new course in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk / Golfweek)

Rooney teamed up with four other investors to create American Dunes LLC in the layout renovation, and Nicklaus agreed to waive what Rooney said was his typical design fee of $ 3 million. Still, big donations were needed to make the renovation happen, and Rooney is a natural pitcher who was able to garner support. He recently avoided guessing exactly how much money the course could generate for donating to Folds of Honor as the course’s operating profits, but if all goes according to plan, that should be enough for thousands of dollars. ‘other children.

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At the grand opening, more than 11,000 players had booked rounds in 2021 to play a new course that none of them had seen. And while Rooney said the focus should be on the honor folds and not necessarily the layout itself, these players are going to feast on a layout that stretches 7,213 yards from the tees. the longest.

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Especially on the rear nine, which was the front. Nicklaus said Rooney suggested flipping the nine to end up through the best duneland on the property.

After No.10 drives players away from the clubhouse and the nearby giant American Flag along the Ninth Fairway, the scenery stretches downhill along the 11th Fairway. From there, players can see parts of # 12, 13 and especially 17 running alongside, and much of the layout opens up even more from there. No more trees, replaced by long views over several fairways and greens.

A cross sits between # 17 and # 18 at American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. Players are asked to leave nickels in the grass at the cross, a long tradition of pilots at the graves of fallen soldiers. (Jason Lusk / Golfweek)

“He told me it was going to be called American Dunes, and I got here (the first time) and it was totally tree lined with huge trees,” Nicklaus said. “I went, ‘Where are the dunes? Where are these things? ‘ And he said, ‘They’re under these trees. This means that we had to cut down trees. … I am generally a bit addicted to trees and I don’t like cutting them down. But in this case, it was the proper thing to do.

Trees planted in rows over the decades since the Grand Haven Golf Club opened in 1965 were the first to go there. Rooney, the son of the course owners, knew there were some great golf courses under all that cover.

“It was Dan’s vision, and I said, ‘If this is where you’d like to go, then it’s my job to help you create your vision.’ Nicklaus said. “This is what I do and this is what I love to do.”

Nicklaus didn’t set out to create an overly demanding layout – don’t confuse this course with some of Nicklaus’ previous courses built decades ago to test PGA Tour players while offending recreational players. There are no extremely stepped greens, no overly heavy forced transport through the water. There are ponds, most on the top nine, but thoughtful amateurs can play instead of necessarily on them.

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# 16 features a sand cross bunker at American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk / Golfweek)

That’s not to say American Dunes is a cinch. Located nearby but not on the shores of Lake Michigan, the course can experience significant winds. The 16th, in particular, is a long par 4 stretching 503 yards from the back tee, playing towards the lake and in the prevailing breeze. A native expanse of sand juts out onto the fairway about 100 yards from the green. But unlike water, players can play from such a waste area, so instead of stray balls, these are simply stray shots for those unfortunate or reckless enough to drop a ball in the sand. brown.

With rolling elevation changes, stretches of sand are the defining characteristics of the rear nine. Native sand is extremely soft, almost powdery, sometimes difficult to escape and requiring skill and speed to keep the clubhead moving. There is plenty of room in most cases to dodge the sand if a player is thinking, but that doesn’t make it easier to shoot from the throwaway areas after a reckless or poorly executed swing.

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Besides the rolling duneland, sand – as seen here at # 10 – is the dominant feature of the American dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan. (Jason Lusk / Golfweek)

Overall, the sandy litter areas and tumultuous terrain create a raw, exposed feel – very different from many of the courses Nicklaus built with plentiful water and almost wall-to-wall grass there. has decades.

“I like to let things evolve,” said Nicklaus. “… Sand is great to work with. If I could do all the golf courses, the rest of my golf courses, on sand, that would be my choice. …

“Everything is built on sand, so it’s going to flow quickly. And we wanted to have a golf course that will play fast (allowing the ball to roll), so even with some yardage, it’s not going to play for long. And I hope it’s fun.

All of this makes for a unique experience for those who might crave a mix of uninhibited patriotism and solid golf.

“One thing Mr. Nicklaus has always told me, I want to give you a golf course that lives up to the cause,” said Rooney. “I think we have it here.”


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