American Dunes Golf Course Review
Grand Haven, Michigan
Teacher’s Comments: A beautiful course and a moving experience.
American Dunes is more than a golf course; it is a golf experience. Actually, it is even more than that: it is a patriotic experience.
The course is a spiritual home for the Folds of Honor Foundation, which provides educational scholarships to the spouses and children of America’s deceased or disabled service members. Since 2007, the foundation has provided more than 29,000 scholarships worth $145 million. In 2020, Folds of Honor joined with the PGA of America to expand its for Patriot Golf Days, which are now appropriately held on Memorial Day Weekend.
In fact, American Dunes is built on the land formerly occupied by Grand Haven Golf Club, at which the first Patriot Golf Day was held in 2007.
Grand Haven, in turn, was owned by the family of Lt. Colonel Dan Rooney, the founder of Folds of Honor. For Rooney, a PGA Professional, the connection between golf and Folds of Honor was natural. Grand Haven would become American Dunes, a golf facility that honors and supports American veterans.
Rooney’s vision for the course was to take advantage of the natural sand dunes of a property that is just a couple of hundred yards from Lake Michigan. None other than Jack Nicklaus donated his architectural services for the complete overhaul of Grand Haven.
As the name suggests, American Dunes is routed across the property’s expanse of dunes near Lake Michigan. I never had the chance to play Grand Haven Golf Club, but have been reliably informed that it was tree-lined and tight. One golfer I know described it as a “bowling alley.”
When Nicklaus first arrived at the property, he asked “Where are the dunes?”
“Under the trees,” Rooney replied.
So the trees had to go.
The result is a mostly open, links-style design, with vast sandy waste areas and ground that is designed to play hard and fast. It is unique in that it is not quite linksland and not quite woodlands.
American Dunes begins with three woodlands/parklands style holes, then opens up on the fourth at the back end of the property. The transition is dramatic as you climb a steep wooded dune side from the third green to the crest, which reveals a sandy basin surrounded by forest. Four through six play through the open, links style basin. Seven through nine then play back toward the clubhouse with a more parklands feel.
Ten is another parklands style hole which finishes on the side of a dune. Eleven heads to the heart of American Dunes, which is routed through a second large, open sandy basin.
The seven holes in the second basin are memorable. Routed up and down the contours of the dunes, there seems to be as much sand as fairway. In many ways, Nicklaus’ design reminded me of holes at the highly acclaimed Tobacco Road.
That seven hole stretch is one of the most fun I have played.
American Dunes is a long and difficult course from the tips, stretching to 7, 213 yards and playing to a 75.4/148.
There also are seven hybrid tee arrangements, covering the gaps in yardage between the principal tees.
Conditions on the day I played were very good. The course was a year old when I teed it up, so the fairways lacked the maturity they’ll have a couple of years in the future. Greens and tee boxes were in top shape. The superintendent and his crew clearly take pride in their work.
The golf at American Dunes is outstanding, but there is far more to the experience.
The entrance to the course and clubhouse passes through a series of memorial walls reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. On the walls of the panels are plaques telling the stories of fallen warriors. The entry way reminds players that “Freedom is Not Free” and asks that we “Honor Their Sacrifice. Educate Their Legacy.”
American Dunes plays both Reveille at the morning raising of the flag, and Taps at 1 pm. Golfers are asked to pause their play and remove their caps until the ceremony is completed and the bell rings thirteen times.
Before the round, each golfer is given a nickel by the starter. After leaving the 17th green, players are asked to toss the nickel into the grass surrounding a large white cross. Among the US Air Force fighter pilot community, tossing a nickel into the grass is associated with the final salute to a fallen warrior.
The tee markers reflect core values, such as Valor, Freedom and Honor.
The 150 yard markers resemble properly folded flags.
Each tee box on the course has two plaques: one, commemorating one of Nicklaus’ eighteen major victories; the other, commemorating a fallen warrior.
In the clubhouse, the watering hole is called the CAVU (Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited) Fighter Squadron Bar. It has an missile incorporated into the beer dispenser, and models of planes hanging from the ceiling. It is a perfect place to end (or begin) your patriotic round at American Dunes.
American Dunes is an experience well worth the cost of admission, especially considering that the greens fees in part go to support the cause.
The American Dunes Golf Course Review was first published January 20, 2022 from notes and photos taken on a round played in the summer of 2021.
An American Dunes photo tour follows: