GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — Just off the dune-lined shores of Lake Michigan sits a golf course with a mission.
“I have realized that we have created this vessel, which people climb on and we give them an opportunity to do good. Because I believe in my heart, most people want to do good,” Dan Rooney said.
American Dunes Golf Club was Rooney’s brainchild. It took off after he met with his boyhood idol, Jack Nicklaus, and shared his vision.
“A moment that was way scarier than (asking Nicklaus to design the course) was walking out of the Bear’s Club with a ‘yes’ in my hand. Because Jack Nicklaus just said ‘yes,’ and the weight and the expectations and the no-fail execution that comes with that, was terrifying,” Rooney said.
Terrifying yet uplifting for the fighter pilot. Because not only did Nicklaus say ‘yes,’ but he also waved his usual $3 million dollar fee. That’s how much he believed in the mission.
FOLDS OF HONOR SERVES FAMILY MEMBERS OF THE FALLEN
The mission started back in 2006. Rooney was returning from his second tour in Iraq. He was on the plane that carried the body of Cpl. Brock Bucklin home to Grand Rapids. When he watched Brock Bucklin’s twin brother walk alongside the flag-draped casket and meet the rest of his heartbroken family, Rooney was inspired to do something.
“There’s this beautiful irony in life that I have discovered, and it’s the greatest drug. When you reach out to help someone, you are actually the one being helped,” Rooney said.
The idea was to hold a golf outing and raise money to give scholarships to family members of soldiers who have been killed or wounded in the line of duty. He raised $16,000 in the first year, which started the Folds of Honor.
“Let them have an education that gives them an opportunity,” Brock Bucklin’s father, Buck Bucklin said. “It’s an enabler. It enables them to maybe accomplish whatever they’re capable of.”
Fittingly, the first recipient of a Folds of Honor scholarship was Brock Bucklin’s son, Jacob Green — an honor he cherishes.
“Folds isn’t just a charity, it’s a family,” Green said. “I’ve talked to every other recipient that I’ve met. We’re like, our own therapy group for each other. No one knows more what you’re going through that someone that has gone through it themselves.”
By this fall, Folds of Honor will have given out more than $200 million in scholarships. It won’t bring his son back, but Buck Bucklin takes great pride in seeing his son’s legacy attached to this mission.
“Any parent that has to go to their kid’s funeral, is something none of us want to do,” he said. “Having gone through it, I can assure you, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever been through in my life. But knowing there there’s tens of thousands of kids that will benefit from this, helps, and it’s good. And it’s a wonderful thing.”
FROM $5,000 TO A FULL RIDE
Dave North is the retired CEO of Sedgewick Insurance who also served in the Air Force. He was looking for a philanthropic cause to get behind and was so inspired was by the work of Folds that he became a partner with American Dunes. Now, he’s putting his efforts into making the value of the scholarships even greater.
“We provide a $5,000 scholarship to these worthy individuals. As good as that is, in today’s society, with costs of education, it’s not enough,” North said.
As a member of the board of trustees at the University of Memphis, North was able to convince the university to turn that $5,000 scholarship into full tuition. His goal is to get other public universities across the country to do the same. His pitch: Haven’t the families already paid a enough?
“You know in your heart all of this goes back to the many, many people in our country that gave their lives or are disabled for our freedom. And their kids and their family are our responsibility,” North said.
‘GOLF’S MOST HEROIC ROUND’
Before ever stepping foot onto the golf course at American Dunes, players walk through a solemn memorial. Cpl. Brock Bucklin is one of the soldiers from every branch of military that is honored on the walls. Their boot prints grace the walkway below their plaques.
Every day at 1 p.m., taps is played outside the clubhouse. The staff stops what they’re doing and pay tribute to fallen soldiers with their hands over their hearts.
“We talk about it being golf’s most heroic round,” North said. “From the time you walk into the parking lot, through the honor wall as you approach the clubhouse, the flag that’s flying, and you start to realize there is way more to golf than this.”
As golfers make their way around course designed by Nicklaus, they are thanked by Folds families. They see two plaques on every hole, one that honors a soldier and a second that pays tribute to one of the 18 majors Nicklaus won during his hall of fame career.
From time to time the Golden Bear pops on the screen of their cart and regales them with a story about a key moment in his career.
“Mr. Nicklaus and I talk about this place … as a church. A church is a place you come to find spirituality. This is a golf course that is going to raise people’s spirits,” Rooney said.
Rooney’s goal was to make American Dunes the type of golf course that would inspire golfers and veterans from all across the country to make the pilgrimage to Grand Haven.
David and Judy Faulkner made the trip from Alabama. They came to see their son.
“t’s been 13 years,” Judy Faulkner said.
“It’s just good to know that the men and women that have made the sacrifice are not forgotten,” David Faulkner said.
“It gives me hope for our nation, that people still take time to appreciate, that freedom is not free,” Judy Faulkner added.
Their son Blair paid the ultimate price in 2008, when he was killed in a training accident in Columbus.
“Blair loved flying. He told us every day he went on the line to get into the jet, it was like Christmas,” David Faulkner said.
“He said, ‘If I die flying, you’ll know I died doing what I loved and serving my country,’” Judy Faulkner said.
It’s patriots like Blair Faulkner and the other soldiers on the memorial at American Dunes that inspire Rooney to keep pushing for growth in Folds of Honor, and to give every penny of profit from the golf course to the cause.
“I use this very simple concept in life, I call it a ‘divine echo.’ However you want your life to manifest itself, first you have to put it out in the world, and then it echoes back to you,” Rooney said. “This is a divine echo. We put it out in the world but it has come back with such awesome reverberation.”