Rooney is unique in that he's both a PGA golf professional and a decorated F-16 fighter pilot, and through those vocations he is attempting to make the "golf family" tighter while assisting the families of America's fallen military veterans
Lt. Col. Dan Rooney is both a PGA golf professional and decorated F-16 fighter pilot, who served three tours of duty in Iraq. Rooney has received the White House's Presidential Volunteer Service Award, the Air National Guard's Distinguished Service Medal, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the PGA of America's inaugural Patriot Award.
In 2007, Rooney, with assistance from the PGA of America, founded Patriot Golf Day, a nationwide movement that provides funding and support of veterans and military families. He also is founder and CEO of Folds of Honor, a nonprofit organization that provides educational scholarships to the spouses and children of military members who have fallen or been disabled while serving in the United States Armed Forces.
In 2021, Folds of Honor partnered with Jack Nicklaus to open American Dunes Golf Club, which celebrates those same service members and raises money for the Folds of Honor cause. Rooney and his organization have now awarded more than 35,000 scholarships representing more than $160 million in educational impact.
This year, Folds of Honor has entered into a partnership with the PGA Tour, USGA and LPGA to provide further assistance and awareness for Patriot Golf Days, which is taking place this Memorial Day weekend (May 27-30).
Meanwhile, the 49-year old Rooney remains strong in his faith and active serving his country, flying military training exercises. Moreover, along with his wife Jacqy, he is a parent to five girls.
The First Call's Dan O'Neill recently spoke with Rooney about how his dual passions for flying and golf came to be and how he merged the two to create Folds of Honor.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
The First Call: Dan, you are the only one of your kind in this world — a PGA pro who also happens to be a decorated fighter pilot. How did that happen?
Dan Rooney: I was an impressionable young kid, growing up in Stillwater, Oklahoma. I played golf, I loved my PGA professional and when I was 12, I met the first fighter pilot I ever saw — Steve Cortright. We were playing in a golf outing at Stillwater Country Club and I was in their group. And as a kid, I was just shocked that you could be old and be that cool. Steve looked like he just walked right out of "The Right Stuff".
And the big thing was, he invested in me. He took the time to talk to me and I built a relationship with him that I still have. He’s one of my dearest friends today. But he helped mentor me on the basis that I wanted to be a fighter pilot, when I was just 12. And I told my dad, “I want to be a golf pro and a fighter pilot. I’m going to create my own reality.” I just had no idea how God was going to put those two things together.
TFC: You played golf at the University of Kansas and helped lead the Jayhawks to two consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. You also gave the mini tours a spin for a couple of years after graduating college. So, how are the two disciplines related? How does a guy who can relate to "Tin Cup" also know the intricacies of "Top Gun"?
DR: There’s no doubt that playing golf prepared me to be a fighter pilot, and a better one. And dealing with pressure is a big part of it. There’s a lot of crossover. Your ability to think in the fourth dimension of time, because there’s a ton of time compression when you’re traveling at 1,000 miles per hour. That’s when it gets a little bit different. And yeah, hitting it out of bounds is no big deal in a round of golf. It sucks, yeah. But if you have a bad day in the fighter pilot world, you’re a smoking hole in the ground, and you’re not alive. So the stakes are much higher hitting the start button on an F-16 than they are putting the peg in the ground on the first tee.
Yet, there is a lot of similarity in that mental and physical meld — where those two things intersect, no doubt. There’s a lot more pressure in the fighter pilot world, you know, your heart rate is up and the fear of failure is there, and you have to manage that. Those things are very similar, it’s just that the consequences of flying F-16s are much higher.
TFC: What was your inspiration for starting Patriot Golf Days and Folds of Honor, what started you down this path?
DR: These moments are synchronized, right? Chance and purpose intersect in our lives. I was on my way to my other job as a golf professional, headed to our family’s golf course in Grand Haven, Michigan, which has since been reimagined and reborn as American Dunes. Anyway, I boarded a flight with Corp. Brock Bucklin, who was being brought home from Iraq. He had been killed there, and his identical twin brother, Corp. Brad Bucklin, also was on the flight, bringing him back. And you know I’ve seen a lot of terrible things in combat, and I know freedom isn’t free, but I watched that family on the darkest night of their lives, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The flight landed and was on the tarmac, and Bucklin’s American flag-draped coffin was bring slowly inched down from the cargo hold, while his family, including his 4-year-old son, was out there. And, despite the captain’s request that people remain seated and wait to get off the plane out of respect for what was going on, half the people got up and left the airplane. And that’s probably the greatest motivator for me to actually do something. Because I was pissed, and sad and all those things. God communicates to our heart, rarely to our head, and rarely from the voices around us. So I’m just so thankful, looking back, that I had the courage and the faith to listen to what he put in my heart that day.
People will look at what we’ve done since and say, “Wow overnight success!” But there’s been a lot of good, and a lot of pain and suffering along the way to get to where we are today, 15 years later. So I’m thankful we stayed the course, because there was a lot of times when I was going to pitch out of the fight, go be an airline pilot and have a normal life. But I found the resilience in my heart to get up and fight again the next day.
TFC: How did the union with your boyhood idol, Jack Nicklaus happen?
DR: Like almost everything in my life — good comes out of ashes and chaos. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s like, “Man, the darker the situation is, the more sure I am that there’s a wildly bright light beeping and driving me forward.”
So, where Folds of Honor started was at our family golf course in Grand Haven, Michigan, which we had for 20 years. And that deal was on life support. You know, bleeding money, terrible financial situation. My parents were pushing 80, and had it not been failing, we would have never been forced to look at what was next. Right?
The easy solution was, “Hey, turn it into real estate.” But that didn’t feel good to anybody because it’s where Folds of Honor started, where 67 people gathered and hosted the first Patriot Golf Day. Without that golf course, obviously, I’m never on the flight with the Bucklins, but because that’s where I was going when that took place, how it all started. So my Hail Mary pass was navigating the necessary waters to get a meeting with Jack Nicklaus.
I had no idea what he would say, and I did not know him, other than, “Hey, will you take a picture with me” or “Man, I can’t believe that’s Jack Nicklaus.” And I just kind of poured my heart out to him. And I’ve found that it’s very effective in life just to be real with people, and especially when stuff has broken your heart, and you’re struggling. Humility is like the divine currency that connects all of us. So I just told him my humble story and, “This is where I am, I’m in a bad place. But I got an idea.” And he calls it, “the crazy idea.” And he said, “I like your crazy idea.”
I said, "Let’s build a golf church, let’s call it ‘American Dunes.’ But there’s one big issue involved — I don’t have any money.”
Jack said, “Well, I’ll waive my $3 million fee. You get some of your people and I’ll get some of my people, we’ll put a little roadshow together." So off I go on this walk with my other boyhood hero — besides my dad — Jack Nicklaus. And Barbara (Nicklaus) quickly became my hero, too, and we built this golf church.
Now we’re heading into the second year there, and this thing is raising extraordinary awareness for Folds of Honor, and raising important money. And I just can’t imagine a more emotionally charged golf experience in the world. Nothing like it exists. It’s faith and family and the game we love.
TFC: From what we understand, Jack told you he just wanted to “build you a golf course that is as good as the cause.” Did he make the “crazy idea” come true with American Dunes?
DR: Yeah, it’s like … you can’t explain it. You know, from the ashes, God will build it the way he wants. And Jack kept looking at me and saying, “This is one of the best sites I have ever been on in my life.” We blew it up, we took out thousands of trees. And it was just this massive canvas of this perfect consistency of sand, which is so critical when trying to build a dunes environment.
It is reverent, the highest level of golf experience, combined with scripture. We sing the National Anthem every day, we pause at 1300 hours every day (1 p.m. military time) to play taps. Everything comes to a stop and the bell tolls 13 times — which is how many times a flag is folded at a military funeral. It’s so cool.
TFC: Now you are getting ready to announce another emotionally moving element at American Dunes — the Wall of Honor.
DR: Yes, it’s a really special thing. It’s a perfect way to complete the round of golf on the site and be reminded of these heroes, and that freedom is not free. One percent of this country wakes up every day and is willing to sacrifice so that the rest of us can live free.
The Wall of Honor will be an integral part of the golf course, standing behind the 18th green. On the Wall will be individual 8 x 2 inch plaques, listing the names of American heroes. Then, to purchase a plaque and have the name or names of the heroes they want to honor, families or supporters donate $313, which they can renew annually.
The goal is to raise $1 million for academic scholarships for military dependents. To honor an individual, people can visit the website to make a donation and secure a plaque. And then replica plaques are sent to those who sign up.
Nothing like this has ever been done in golf. Presently, we have 33 fallen heroes commemorated at the course. This is a way to pay tribute to those who deserve and need our help.
TFC: And now that mission has continued to spread, as Folds of Honor has announced a new partnership with the USGA, PGA Tour, PGA of America and LPGA. What does that mean for the cause?
DR: Well, the union with all of the golf associations starts with doing it the right way. We have given out 35,000 scholarships, $160 million out the door and 91 cents out of every dollar we raise is going directly to fund scholarship programs. What’s more, 41 percent of our scholarships go to minority recipients. That’s key, because golf is in desperate need of diversity and equality. Golf’s heart is absolutely in the right place, we just don’t look like the rest of America. And it’s a long runway to get there. But it’s a short runway to look at the power of the game and the people who donate through the game, the power they have to affect opportunity and equality in America.
And that’s where Patriot Golf Days comes in and the 41 percent of our recipients that are going to school. And the hero in the story is Seth Waugh [CEO of the PGA], who is such an incredible human being. He calls it the “golf family,” and I said, “Seth, I need your help to bring the golf family around this.”
In the military it’s called “force-multiply.” That is, we’re so much stronger together. And if we can get the PGA, USGA, PGA Tour and LPGA together to energize their golf base … how strong could we be? And this is a three-year play, unifying golf around Patriot Golf Days, with the goal of having it be the anthem of golf, where we all come together, where it’s not a red issue or a blue issue — it’s red, white and blue.
We give golfers the opportunity to play their most heroic round on behalf of those who served, supporting Folds of Honor and PGA HOPE. That was a big piece that energized Seth to be like, “Man, go make this happen.” Because together we’re the most holistic military program in the country. So that’s the behind-the-scenes story, and we’ll grow those relationships and keep building.
TFC: With all you have seen in combat, all the families and heroes that you meet, all the inspiring moments you have had … has it hardened you to these stories? Do you still get emotional?
DR: I cry every day. It’s just unbelievable, it’s so real. And again, from the ashes … These families come out of the dark ashes to this bright light, and to someone believing in them, which is fundamental to all humanity. To have someone say, “I believe in you. I want to empower your future,” and recognize the sacrifices they have made for our freedoms. There’ nothing more Godly than fighting through struggle and helping someone do that.
I don’t know what you call it — it’s sort of emotional currency. But the true irony that when you reach out to help someone, you’re the one being helped. Everyone wants to feel fulfilled, and you can do that though helping others.
TFC: So where do you go from here? Will there be more American Dunes golf courses built around the country? Do the ideas get crazier?
DR: I’d be lying if I said we weren’t conspiring on another one, but everything is in God’s timing. I’m not a goal setter. My goal is, every day I wake up and I try to fully give the day to God. And I ask to be given the energy and the vision on where we want to go. I try to live the day to its fullest, “ceiling and visibility unrestricted,” as they say in the military. And it’s amazing, when you’re living openly, the gestures that you get.
I don’t know where we’re going, but we’re going to keep running the play.