Rooney Combines Two Loves To Create Special Golf Initiative For Fallen Heroes
August 22, 2007
By David Shefter, USGA
Far Hills, N.J. — Fighter pilot and golf professional.
That might seem like an odd occupational double. Not for 34-year-old Oklahoma native Dan Rooney. Not many people can say they fly $45 million F-16 jets while operating golf courses at the same time. For Rooney, it's a daily passion, a true life calling. It doesn't matter if he's pulling 9Gs (1,333 miles per hour) at 15,000 feet or making sure his golf operation is running smoothly, Rooney would not alter his lifestyle.
And now he's putting both loves to use for a worthy charitable cause. Through the support of the USGA and PGA of America, Rooney has declared Sept. 1 as Patriot Golf Day. Some 2,000 courses across the country have signed up. At public facilities, green fees have been raised $1, while private clubs have asked members to add $5 to their monthly dues. These monies will be earmarked for Rooney's Fallen Heroes Foundation and Wounded Warriors Inc., a non-profit organization that provides retreat-style housing for those families recuperating from the loss or disablement of loved ones who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Fallen Heroes Foundation was established by Rooney in 2006 to assist spouses and children of disabled or killed loved ones with money for education, whether it's college, trade school, medical school or law school.
Rooney is a unique individual. Most of his days are spent overseeing the Grand Haven (Mich.) Golf Club that he and his father purchased in 1998. The remaining eight to 10 days you'll find this energetic and patriotic individual inside the cockpit of one of the military's most sophisticated jets, the F-16. Rooney joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard in 1998 and has already done two tours in Iraq providing critical air support for the Army and Marines below. He'll do another tour in 2008.
"If you are going to do something, you want to do it at the highest level," said Rooney, "and in my humble opinion, the F-16 is the greatest airplane in the world. I was compelled to fly fast airplanes."
The idea to help others actually came to him while aboard a pedestrian commercial airliner. Flying from Chicago to Grand Rapids in 2005, he heard the pilot announce that an American hero was onboard. Rooney thought it was the uniformed soldier seated in first class. He quickly discovered that it was Army Corporal Brad Bucklin's twin brother, Brock, who had been killed in non-combat action in Iraq. Brock's coffin was being brought back to the states. Every passenger was asked to remain seated until the casket had been taken from the aircraft. An emotional Rooney took this all in as Brock's 4-year-old son watched from the tarmac with the rest of the family members.
As a father of three daughters - his third child was born in late July - Rooney came up with a plan. What if he could help families who have been victimized by the Iraq conflict? What if he could set up a foundation to assist with the future education of spouses and children who have seen a loved one killed or disabled as a result of this war?
"It made the most sense to be able to combine golf with my military golf background," said Rooney.
So in 2006, he held a fund-raiser tournament at Grand Haven Golf Club. It's a facility that Rooney and his father, John, brought back to life after they purchased it in 1998. The course was in ill-repair, with Rooney describing it as "finding a Picasso in your grandparents' attic." Dan and John Rooney completely gutted the facility, building a new clubhouse and installing a new irrigation system. The entire course was refurbished.
"It's one of the most magical little golf courses that I have ever played in my life," said Rooney, who played collegiately at the University of Kansas and qualified for the 1995 U.S. Amateur at Newport (R.I.) Country Club, where he shot 148 (75-73) and missed the match-play cut by three strokes.
This year, Rooney invited Brian Whitcomb, the president of the PGA of America, to the tournament. The event raised $40,000. That's a nice chunk of change, but not enough to affect the thousands of families who need the money. Since the war in Iraq started, more than 4,000 soldiers have been kills and another 26,000 wounded. Rooney has seen first-hand how young kids have suffered psychological damage from this deadly war.
He realized one annual tournament wasn't going to raise the necessary funds to help. This event had to go national, but the time and energy to conduct events all across the U.S. was too much for one man to handle. So Rooney reached out Golf Digest magazine, who in turn helped get CBS golf broadcaster Jim Nantz involved. During the recent PGA Championship at Southern Hills Country Club in Rooney's hometown of Tulsa, Okla., CBS did some pieces on Rooney's grand idea. It included bringing on-course commentator David Feherty up for a ride in an F-16.
Rooney's next call was to Whitcomb in Bend, Ore. Whitcomb, who has called Rooney "a true American hero," embraced the idea right away.
"That got the ball rolling," said Rooney.
The PGA of America contacted the USGA and the Association immediately joined the team of supporters.
"I'm just so blessed and humbled that people have believed in the cause and believed in my initiative to jump on board and get this thing going," said Rooney. "We're poised to change thousands of lives, hopefully for many years in the future."
In just four short weeks, Rooney, through the help of PGA professionals, has managed to sign up 2,000 golf courses. For a complete list of participating facilities, go to www.playgolfamerica.com and click the Patriot Golf Day icon. He picked Sept. 1 because it is the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, a time when many people hit the golf course in what is often termed the last official weekend of summer. The date could change in the future. In fact, Rooney is talking about holding the event during Memorial Day weekend in 2008.
"Our goal is to communicate with golfers, PGA members and USGA Members around the country and then we'll see what happens on Sept. 1," said Rooney. "I give all the credit in the world to the PGA of America. They have spent an inordinate amount of time using their wealth of resources that I don't have."
No goals have been set in terms of dollar amounts, but with good weather, Rooney estimated the initiative will generate six figures in the first year. In five years, however, Rooney envisions some 10,000 courses participating, which could bring in some $5 million.
That's a far cry from the dollars he earned bouncing around on several mini-tours after graduating in 1996. He tried PGA Tour Qualifying School in 1997 and never made it out of the first stage. At that time, he wanted to go in another direction with his career. He wanted to fly jets. And not just any jets - F-16s. He obtained his pilot's license and did all the requirements to get into the Oklahoma Air National Guard. He then spent nearly five years training, putting in an average of 1,500 hours of flying time.
Rooney also wanted to achieve his other goal of becoming a PGA professional. So in 2001, he enrolled to get his certification, which he achieved in 2005, becoming a Class A-13 pro (owner).
This fall, Rooney and his dad will have the groundbreaking on a golf course project in Tulsa. Designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. and shaper Bill Kubly of Landscapes Unlimited have agreed to donate a portion of their fees to the Fallen Heroes Foundation. The private facility, set to open in the spring of 2009, has also been set up so a portion of the profits will also be given to the foundation.
The club will be aptly named The Patriot.
The moniker definitely fits Dan Rooney.
David Shefter is a USGA staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com.