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John Reitman

By John Reitman

Recipient of Nicklaus' charity will be cornerstone of scholarship program


Shaping is nearly complete at American Dunes Golf Club, part of which will open next year. Photos courtesy of Jon Scott.

It might be hard to find anyone in golf who does more for those in need than Jack Nicklaus. And it might be even more difficult to find a course more deserving of his benevolence than the 50-plus-year old track on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan that holds a special place in his heart.

Whether it is helping provide a wide network of healthcare services for children throughout South Florida or donating his design services to some of his favorite pet projects, Jack Nicklaus has made a life of giving back to those in need. 

Nicklaus' latest endeavor has been to donate his design services to the course formerly known as Grand Haven Golf Club, situated in the western Michigan town of the same name.

Opened in 1965, Grand Haven Golf Club was designed and built on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan by the father-and-son architecture team of Bruce and Jerry Matthews. A half-century later, Nicklaus is redesigning the course that will serve as a living tribute to the armed forces and all who have served by being an avenue for raising funds to provide scholarships to members of military families.

"I love the game of golf, but I love my country even more," Nicklaus said in a news release.

With my parents getting older and me trying to figure out what to do with the golf course, the easy answer was 'plow it under and convert it to real estate in a thriving town.' The hard right was to try to save it.

Dr. John Rooney bought Grand Haven in 1988. Twenty years later, the course was the birthplace of the Folds of Honor program started by Rooney's son, Maj. Dan Rooney, a PGA professional and a pilot in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Eleven years ago, the younger Rooney started the Folds of Honor program that provides scholarships to spouses and children of fallen or wounded service members. The newly renovated course will be a fundraising tool to support the scholarship program through a series of tournaments held in conjunction with the upcoming Patriot Golf Day. Nine holes are scheduled to open in October 2020 and the other nine in 2021.

Rooney and Nicklaus have known each other for years, and the latter has been a supporter of Folds of Honor since its inception. The two crossed paths two years ago at The Bear's Club in Jupiter, Florida, where Rooney shared his vision for Grand Haven's legacy in the Folds of Honor program.

"This family-owned golf course is where Fields of Honor started. Mr. Nicklaus has been a big supporter of Fields of Honor," Rooney said. 

"With my parents getting older and me trying to figure out what to do with the golf course, the easy answer was 'plow it under and convert it to real estate in a thriving town.' The hard right was to try to save it.

"Mr. Nicklaus asked me what I wanted the course to be, and I want it to be something that is reverent to God and country and what this can be to future generations."

Nicklaus saw the genius in that vision and agreed to donate his services and those of his team at his North Palm Beach, Florida firm that has designed or renovated more than 400 golf courses in nearly 50 countries.

He was on site this week, checking on the project's progress.

"I don’t know that the golf course necessarily appealed to me," Nicklaus told the Grand Haven Tribune. "It was the idea of what it represents with the Folds of Honor. Dan Rooney has been a good friend for a long time. He's a good man. He started the Folds, and what they're doing, who they're honoring, what it does is something I'm very much moved by, so when Dan asked me to come and do it, it wasn't a big choice for me, regardless of what the property was. I didn't care what the property was.

"Turns out it was a beautiful piece of property to do a golf course to honor Folds of Honor. A lot of people are really going to enjoy coming here to see the golf course, see what Dan has done to honor fallen soldiers and their families."

Although the Nicklaus name is the big gun behind this project, getting the renovation from the drawing board to the dirt has taken an army of others who either have donated products and/or services or offered them at a steeply discounted rate.

That list includes his design firm's senior design associate Chris Cochran as well as former staff agronomist Jon Scott, who volunteered his time a few years ago on another gratis project by Nicklaus, and has recruited others, including John Murtaugh of MCI, Bill Dunn of Seed Research of Oregon, John Maeder of Profile Products, Jim Thomas of Thomas Turf Services and dozens of others.

"Our military servicemen and women deserve nothing less from us when they give the ultimate sacrifice for their country," said Scott, a Michigan native and resident. "That is why I wanted to be involved, and why so many of my industry friends have joined in this worthy renovation project. It is the least we can do to help Major Dan and the Folds of Honor Foundation."

The course in Grand Haven, where Joe Verduin is superintendent is scheduled to reopen in October 2020 as American Dunes Golf Club.


The project is in its final stages of shaping with seeding to begin later this month. It will combine the area's natural sand dunes with a woodland setting and will utilize native sand in greens and bunker construction.

Folds of Honor raises money through a variety of fundraisers, including Patriot Golf Day, which is a series of golf tournaments at sites nationwide that is scheduled nationally over Labor Day weekend. Individual courses can, however, host events as they fit their individual schedules. 

To date, the Folds of Honor program has awarded more than $130 million in scholarships, including 5,000 scholarships totalling $26 million for the upcoming school year, Rooney said.

"That's all to spouses and children of those killed, injured or disabled," Rooney said. "The impact we have on others is what makes what used to be Grand Haven Golf Club relevant."

Nicklaus' commitment to charitable causes has a long history. He is a longtime supporter of children's healthcare initiatives in South Florida, and two years ago, thanks to the support of Nicklaus and wife Barbara, the Miami Children's Hospital Network became known as the Nicklaus Children's Health System with its own fundraising arm, the Nicklaus Children's Hospital Foundation. 

The Memorial Tournament held at Nicklaus' Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin has raised about $30 million for charity since the inaugural event in 1976. He also has been a longtime supporter of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a fundraising and research initiative by the University of Miami that targets spinal cord and brain injuries.

This isn't the first of Nicklaus' outreach efforts to benefit golf courses. Three years ago, he donated his services to redesign and expand American Lake Veterans Golf Course on the grounds of the Veterans Administration Puget Sound Healthcare System in Lakewood, Washington. 

Everybody is pouring their hearts and souls into this to create a legacy that is going to live beyond all of us, It is going to be something from a pure golf experience, but that wasn't the dream. The dream was to do something that is reverent to the military and God and country.

"My agronomy services were included in that commitment, and I made about six visits to the site before and during construction," Scott said. "I was totally humbled and honored to be a part of such a great cause and met many individuals who were the beneficiaries of our efforts. I was also able to use my industry network to bring many more people into the project to make their own and their companies' contribution. It was one of the most satisfying of all the golf course projects I had worked on in my 18 years with Nicklaus Design."

When North Palm Beach Country Club, a humble, city-owned course in Nicklaus' adopted hometown in Florida, needed a makeover, the Golden Bear did so - for a fee of $1.

So, helping fulfill Rooney's vision was a natural fit for Nicklaus.

"We're very proud at the Nicklaus organization to be a part of this," Nicklaus said, "very proud to be part of Folds of Honor's past, and very proud to be a part of its future."

The course, which combines a natural dunes setting with a woodland theme, is in the final stages of shaping under the eye of Doug Graham of Graham Golf, with seeding to begin later this month. 

Greens will be grassed with 777 creeping bentgrass developed at Rutgers University by Rich Hurley, Ph.D., Stacy Bonos, Ph.D., and Leah Brilman, Ph.D. Tees and fairways will be covered with Flagstick creeping bentgrass out of Michigan State and Seed Research of Oregon. Both were chosen for disease resistance.

The new design and the natural setting promises to make American Dunes a unique golf experience.

"Everybody is pouring their hearts and souls into this to create a legacy that is going to live beyond all of us," Rooney said. "It is going to be something from a pure golf experience, but that wasn't the dream. The dream was to do something that is reverent to the military and God and country. 

"Sometimes, things have to fall apart to come together. I knew the site was nice, but it is going to come together to create a golf experience that will be in the rarest of air. We are within a four-hour drive of about 35 million people. I think it will be a pilgrimage-type effect, but people will be coming for a reason beyond golf."

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