Dan Rooney’s father was a college geography professor who insisted his children travel the world and dream big. At age 12, Dan told his father he was going to be a golf professional and a fighter pilot. Big dreams for someone so young. He had no idea how the dream of being a top gun fighter pilot and being a PGA Professional would change so many lives of military families.
Now 50, reality is bigger than the preteen’s dreams. Much bigger.
Lt Col Rooney started first on the golf path. He played as a walk-on at Kansas University, eventually earning a scholarship and making the cut at the NCAA Championships with his KU teammates. He qualified for the 100th playing of the US Amateur at New Port Country Club. He even managed to best some guy named Tiger Woods in a round that year. After graduating with a degree in geography and a master’s in sports psychology, the young golfer sweated out life on the mini tours for almost two years, chasing his sports dream. That dream ended with $228 in the bank and the convection to chase the dream that was placed on his heart as a 12-year old boy. He would join the United States Air Force to become and F16 fighter pilot.
Rooney overcame his fear of failure and washing out of pilot training and soon found himself living at 1707 Speedway in Texas at Sheppard Air Force Base. He would fly the T37 and T38 in undergraduate pilot training before moving to Luke Air Force Base, or as fighter pilots call it, “Fighter Country USA.” Luke Air Force Base has the largest number of fighter jets in the world on one base. The skies over Glendale AZ are alive with sound of freedom everyday as fighter jets scream across the steal blue skies.
Rooney would graduate from F16 fighter jet training and receive the “Spirit of Attack” as the top gun graduate. He would take his F16 fighter and head to Iraq 60 days later. He would complete three tours of duty as an F16 pilot and receive countless medals to include the Air Medal and Distinguished Service Medal. Rooney has the distinction of being a two time Top Gun as an F16 fighter pilot.
The realization of the boyhood dream to become a fighter pilot and PGA golf professional was preparation for the next mission. This mission would start on a late-night commercial flight in June 2006, as a passenger, that Col. Rooney found a new purpose, and his life—and the lives of thousands of others—was changed forever.
At the end of a short flight from Chicago to Grand Rapids, Mich., a then Major Rooney was returning from his second tour in Iraq, the pilot announced an American hero was on board—a hero who had given his life fighting for America’s freedoms in Iraq. The pilot requested everyone remain on board as a sign of respect as the remains of Corp. Brock Bucklin were taken from the belly of the aircraft and handed over to the fallen soldier’s family.
Crying, Rooney says the cost of freedom and patriotism hit him like never before. It was at that moment after a phone call to his wife—who was all in—that Folds of Honor and Patriot Golf Day were born.
That first Patriot Golf Day (it later became Days) raised a bit more than $8,000 for veteran families, but then the afterburners were lit. Media, and broadcasters Jim Nantz and David Feherty took notice. A nervous Feherty was taken straight up vertical on an F-16 fighter jet flight, a video later shown by CBS Sports on its golf broadcast. Lt Col Rooney is a Class A golf professional and after phone calls to the PGA of America and the USGA, they joined the cause, and the first Patriot Golf Day was set for Labor Day in 2007. The effort raised approximately $1 million that year. F-16s don’t take off that fast.
Sixteen years later, the foundation is fueled by a diverse mix of corporate and individual donations. The impact is exceptional with more than 40% of Folds of Honor scholarships are awarded to minorities, “making the recipient family as diverse as the country we call home.” The scholarships can be used for a student’s “unmet needs,” including tutoring. The program was expanded in 2022 to firefighters, law enforcement officers, paramedics, emergency medical technicians and others who respond to fires, medical and other emergencies. Scholarship applicants can apply from Feb. 1 to March 31 of each year. The website is https://foldsofhonor.org/scholarships/
Lt Col Rooney was never going to choose an easy path in life, as evidenced by that youthful conversation with his father. He embraced the fact you have choice each day, live the easy way or the right way. When he told his father about his dual and distinctive goals, his father’s answer wasn’t to try to talk his son out of his dreams, but to note that airplanes, when they take off, must fly into the wind. Not coincidentally, the second of Lt Col Rooney’s USA Today best-selling books is titled “Fly Into the Wind.”
Rooney’s passion for golf knows no bounds. He has founded and constructed two golf courses. Michigan’s American Dunes, a course open to the public and which donated more than $1.1 million to Folds of Honor in 2022, Col. Rooney worked with the firm of Robert Trent Jones II on The Patriot, an Oklahoma course dedicated to patriotism, faith and country that opened on Memorial Day in 2010
Lt Col Dan Rooney—an F16 fighter pilot, with three combat tours in Iraq, and a golf professional, the only person ever with that distinction—is the founder and CEO of Folds of Honor and golf’s Patriot Golf Days. The foundation has raised and provided more than 50,000 scholarships worth over $250 million to families of fallen or disabled US military service members, and more recently, first responders. Lt Col Rooney worked with Jack Nicklaus to design American Dunes Golf Club in Grand Haven, Michigan, a course that has been called “an instant classic.” Lt Col Rooney has spoken to thousands of corporations and community groups, offering his inspirational and motivational message on leadership and “synchronicity,” a term for chance with a purpose.
Today, Lt Col Rooney lives with his wife, Jacqy, and their five daughters in Oklahoma. Along with corporations, he is a motivational speaker to two US Ryder Cup teams, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and colleges and universities. His talks on finding one’s purpose in life, the need for companies to make sure they are surrounded by excellence, and why life should be lived CAVU—Ceiling and Visibility Unlimited. Lt Col Rooney message can be seen at danrooney.com and foldsofhonor.org.
As for what’s next, Lt Col Rooney wrote in the first of his two best-selling books, “A Patriot’s Calling,” the Folds of Honor Foundation “is committed to honor, inspire, and empower our military families. If you think about it, we are all military families, because we are all free.”