GRAND HAVEN, Mich. - "I have a personal connection to this project," he had said earlier. Now, Doug Bell was getting emotional. He spoke with glassy-eyed pride at the poise of his step-daughter, Hannah Davis, who has shared an inspirational but painful story at more than 40 events in recent years.
It is a courageous act, publicly rehashing the death of a family member. Hannah's father, 1st Lt. Jeffrey Davis, was killed in service in a helicopter accident at Fort Bragg, N.C. in 1998, when Hannah was just three years old and her brother, Blake, was one.
Davis was an Army Ranger, piloted a Blackhawk helicopter and served twice as a guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, a high honor for any enlisted man or woman. He is now buried at Arlington.
His golf bag is on display at the nascent American Dunes Golf Club in western Michigan, where Bell is the new Director of Golf. So is an American flag, folded in commemoration of Davis' sacrifice.
Hence the name of the Folds of Honor Foundation, started in 2007 by Maj. Dan Rooney, a veteran of the war in Iraq and F-16 fighter pilot. The charitable organization directs education funding to the children and spouses of military members killed or severely injured on duty. Since its founding, it has awarded almost $20 million in higher-education scholarships of up to $5,000 each. Last year alone, Folds of Honor awarded 4,000 such scholarships.
If you watched the final round U.S. Open a couple weeks ago, you probably took note of champion Gary Woodland's apparel, including a pair of American flag-themed shoes by Puma. Puma's sub-brand, Volition America, funnels a portion of its proceeds to Folds of Honor.
Folds of Honor's network of benefactors is impressive and diverse, and American Dunes is the latest promotional element for the cause.
"Major Dan has said he wants people to cry five or six times during their round," Bell said. That's because along the journey of playing the new golf course, visitors will be exposed to stories about Folds of Honor's background and the individuals its scholarships have helped.
Speaking of the course, Bell admits it would not be becoming a reality without the largesse of one of golf's greatest figures: Jack Nicklaus.
Rooney's family have been part-owners of the former Grand Haven Golf Club since 1998, but over the years the Bruce Matthews design became hemmed in by trees and declined in popularity. Nicklaus' team, headed by Chris Cochran and David Savic, have set to work transforming the course into what they hope will be one of the premier destination courses in Michigan. To make it work financially, Nicklaus is donating his team's design services to the cause, and has also been instrumental in getting various contractors and other providers on board in a cost-effective way.
In addition to the press and goodwill generated by the military tie-in, the new American Dunes should be a fun golf course to play. Located less than a mile from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, the course benefits from an almost purely sandy site, which should help give it the firm and fast playing characteristics that golfers increasingly enjoy. While most of the original hole corridors will be used, American Dunes will be a new golf course, for all intents and purposes.
In order to make the course more playable, Nicklaus' team have removed acres of trees - mostly pines - opening up inspiring vistas across the course that were previously unavailable. The best land is on the front nine, where the second through eighth holes will all be visible from one another. Short fairway grass will be emphasized as both a help and a hindrance on certain holes, and in addition to formal bunkers, Nicklaus' team plans to expose parts of the underlying dunes to golfers by pulling the turf away. The pine-and-dune aesthetic should be reminiscent of that of Upper Midwest gems like Forest Dunes and Sand Valley. The initial run of back nine holes tacks through an existing real estate development, but the corridors should not be too onerous, and they will bring golfers to a dramatic drop-shot par-3 13th at the high point of the property.
Shaping continues apace; Nicklaus visited last week to bless the preliminary design of about a half dozen holes. Bell and Nicklaus' group aim to have at least nine holes open next Memorial Day, with an eye toward all 18 being available to play around July 4, 2020.