Now John Rooney, with his long-held and deep appreciation of golf, is working with his partners to restore Grand Haven Golf Club to its former status as one of the top public courses in America.
“What we saw intrigued us a lot. We saw more potential than was here at the time,” he recalls of the first round he played in the summer of 1997 at the Grand Haven club, a scenic course carved out of the sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan.
“I liked it,” said Rooney, a retired college professor whose academic career led him into professional sports consulting and, eventually, the golfing business.
Rooney, who shoots an 8 handicap and became “addicted” to golf after college, is the managing partner at Grand Haven Golf Club, which he, family members and other investors acquired over a three-year period. Under the new ownership group, the golf club is undergoing a transformation with a new, far more spacious clubhouse that sports a 1920s-era design, a new banquet center capable of seating up to 330 people for business meetings and events such as weddings, and numerous improvements undertaken or upcoming for the golf course.
He plans to maintain Grand Haven as a public course and expects to take three years to bring the golf club up “to the level it deserves.”
“We see this as a lifetime project. We think Grand Haven Golf Club can be very successful from a business standpoint,” the 62-year-old Rooney said.
Rooney, who holds degrees in geography and economics, got into the golfing business after starting his career in academia teaching geography, a field that always interested him. “I just grew up as a kid loving maps and travel and statistics,” he said.
His college classes went beyond teaching students about locations, centering instead on the cultural and economic evolution of a geographic region. As an academic exercise, he became involved in the organization and placement of sports franchises.
Using the principles of those lessons, he went into sports consulting — a field he calls a natural extension of his academic work — while working as a college professor. His clients have included the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, conducting geographic-economic analyses of sports markets.
Rooney, who retired from Oklahoma Sate University in 1995 after 26 years and maintains a winter home there, also has explored the “pigskin culture” of the Deep South, the basketball culture of the Indiana-Illinois-Kentucky region, and what he calls “West Coast Cornucopia” — the tendency among Californians to participate in sports, rather than sit and watch as spectators.
During the early 1980s, Rooney developed a statistical model with the National Golf Foundation and Golf Digest magazine that uses demographic, economic and geographic data to predict a golfing facility’s potential success in a given location.
The consulting work over the years became increasingly focused on golf and eventually led Rooney, who for years had wanted to own a piece of a golf course, to opportunities in Michigan to acquire and manage golf courses.
In 1997, he was urged to take a look at Grand Haven Golf Club by Jerry Matthews, a golf course architect and the son of the course’s previous owner, Bruce Matthews. Jerry Matthews was involved in earlier golf ventures with Rooney and continues to hold a minority stake in Grand Haven.
Drawing Rooney into the golfing business is its mixture of the hospitality, agriculture and food and beverage industries, as well as the need to combine marketing savvy. Becoming owner of a golf course would also allow him “to put my theories in practice,” he said.
“The business intrigued me,” Rooney said. “It’s a challenging business.”
Driving his interest in Grand Haven Golf Club was its history, scenic setting, the overall quality of life in the region and the high growth rate Ottawa County is experiencing. A recent study found an 11-county region along the western shore of Michigan as the No. 1 area in the nation to live and play golf, based on variables that included access to courses and quality of life.
To generate the $3.5 million to $4 million in capital needed to make improvements at the golf club, Rooney and his partners have begun developing acreage surrounding the course into residential developments. The “golf real estate” developments were part of the broader plan for Grand Haven when Rooney and his partners acquired the golf club.
“One way to guarantee business is to have a cadre of people living around the golf club,” he said.
To date, business at the golf club is on the upswing, with memberships growing and the number of rounds golfed this year expected to exceed 30,000. Rooney also is counting on new business from corporate meetings and events held at the 5,000-square-foot banquet center now under construction adjacent to the clubhouse and restaurant.