GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) — There’s a golf course on the lakeshore preparing to welcome visitors from all over the country when it officially opens next spring.

It’s called American Dunes Golf Club and it sits on the property formerly known as the Grand Haven Golf Club. The course has undergone a huge transformation at the hands of golfing legend Jack Nicklaus.

But that’s not what makes it so special; rather, it’s the mission behind the course and how those who tee up will be honoring service members and their families with each stroke.

An panoramic shot of American Dunes Golf Club. (Nov. 10, 2020)

The Golden Bear knows golf and course design. He has had his hand in the design of dozens of courses around the world. But the quote, “I love the game of golf, but I love my country even more,” printed on the American Dunes map shows where his priorities lie.

A map showing the layout of American Dunes Golf Club. (November 2020)

“Most of the golf courses built are just a golf course for commercial reason, but when you get the opportunity to do something that’s not commercial reason, something that is special, this one will always be one very special to me in my heart just for the simple reason of Dan Rooney and the Folds of Honor and what it really believes and means,” Nicklaus said while visiting Grand Haven in September to preview American Dunes.

U.S. Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Dan Rooney is a former fighter pilot and his family owned the property that used to be Grand Haven Golf Club.

Rooney says the club, with its bowling alley-like fairways, had seen better days. Its location a couple hundred yards from Lake Michigan would have made it a nice piece of real estate for developers.

But Rooney had something different on his heart: God, country and golf, in that order.

“People want to say thank you and what we have provided are just these awesome ways to say thank you, but also do it in an enjoyable way,” Rooney said.

All of the profits from American Dunes will go to Folds of Honor, a nonprofit Rooney founded nearly 15 years ago.

The inspiration was sparked on the tarmac of Gerald R. Ford International Airport near Grand Rapids.

“As we pulled up to the gate, the captain made an announcement that we were carrying the remains of Cpl. Brock Bucklin,” Rooney said.

Bucklin, a Forest Hills Central graduate, had been killed while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His twin brother and 4-year-old son were sitting in first class on that flight.

“Despite the captain’s request (to wait), more than half the people got off the plane. It was late and everybody wanted to climb under that blanket of freedom that Brock had given his life for and I felt a calling from God that night,” Rooney said.

Folds of Honor was born and a month a half later, a golf outing at the Grand Haven Golf Club raised money for Bucklin’s family. Folds of Honor has since provided $150 million in scholarships for 30,000 spouses and children of fallen and disabled heroes.

“It’s very special. I’m very fortunate to be in the roll I’m in and have the trust of Lt. Col. Rooney and his family and all the other people that come with folds of honor,” Doug Bell, general manager of American Dunes, said.

Bell has spent his career in the world of golf, but this is more than just another gig to him.

“I was very blessed to meet Ann Davis from Reed City, Michigan, in 2000, a couple years after she lost her husband Jeff who served in the U.S. Army,” said Bell.

The Davises’ children Hannah and Blake were just 3 and 1 when they lost their father in a Blackhawk crash. Today, thanks to the support of Folds of Honor, they Michigan State University and Ferris State and graduates.

“We’ve been a family since the year 2000. They’re my stepkids; I call them my kids. I hope I’m doing Jeff proud,” Bell said.

Rooney said he hopes American Dunes will become a pilgrimage for those who love golf and want to honor the nation’s heroes.

“There’s a saying in the fighter pilot world, ‘We’ve got your six.’ Those are hallowed words and that means we will take care of you we will never leave you behind on the field of battle and that’s what we’re doing at Folds of Honor,” Rooney said.

American Dunes will open to the public in early May. It will start taking reservations in mid-December.

Join WOOD TV8 at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, for a special program honoring West Michigan’s veterans.