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Published: Friday, 3/18/2005

A Michigan man links up with his dream

JACKSON, Mich. - Some men see things that never were, and ask why not, as Bobby Kennedy used to say. Bill Haney is one of those. Take golf, for instance. He fell in love with golf when he first started caddying.

Like most golfers, he dreamed of building his own course, one that would be just the way he wanted it. Unlike nearly all the rest, he decided to do it.

Except this made absolutely no sense. Mr. Haney, who looks faintly like Wally Cox, was then 29 years old. He had a wife and four children, the oldest of whom was 6. He was hardly wealthy; he had a pretty good job as an editor at the University of Michigan Press, but not much more than that.

Most wives would have gently threatened nuclear war. But his Marcy, who couldn't have cared less about golf, said "If you don't do it now, you never will." So they sold their house, borrowed more money, bought a "rundown popcorn farm" in rural Jackson County, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work.

That was in 1966. Mr. Haney not only went on to build his golf course, but eventually established a highly successful career in advertising, with offices in both Detroit and Manhattan, and founded a high-quality book publishing company in suburban Detroit (Momentum Books) when everyone said that couldn't be done.

And now he has written the story of how his young family built a golf course and lived to tell about it: Chasing Dreams in the Boondocks: A Golf Course Comes to Life (Crofton Creek Press; $24.95.)

If you are a golf nut you'll love this book. If you don't like golf, you may love it even more.

This columnist personally loathes golf, would rather do laundry, and had to be strongly persuaded to open this book. Once I started, I couldn't put it down. It is really no more about golf than the Oscar-winning movie Million Dollar Baby is about boxing. What it really is about is the American dream.

Someone, I wish it had been me, called this book sort of a "A Year in Provence comes to the Rust Belt." It is all that. "We learned as much, or more, about ourselves as a family, and about people, as we did about building a golf course," Mr. Haney told me last weekend.

The best thing about this book is that he waited so many years to write it. "You need years of perspective to deal with some of the more painful things," he said. There are personal tragedies, money crises, and balky equipment.

There are also an assortment of rural characters, described in a manner part William Faulkner, part Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Haneys began building "The Boondocks" in the late 1960s, and opened it to the public on May 2, 1970, two days before the student shootings at Kent State.

Those were the years of student protest and a nearby Woodstock-like rock concert; of massive social upheaval in Ann Arbor, where Mr. Haney went to work every morning. But he came home at night to a world right out of American Gothic, where the rhythms of life were in many ways closer to the 1860s.

There is also a suitably haunting, and totally real, darker aspect to the Haneys sojourn in rural America. There is a mystery the locals won't tell them about at first that involves a mean old man named Nate Fish, what may have been the nation's first blood transfusion, and a gruesome death, all right in the front room of the house in which they lived and plotted their golf course.

In the end, they indeed built it, and the customers did come. But the thrill left.

"I wanted to build a golf course. I really didn't like running one."

After two years they sold it to people who had no idea how much work a golf course really was. Today, the golf course has long since vanished, and developers will undoubtedly soon swallow up the land.

Recently, however, Mr. Haney went back and bought the ancient 1841 pole barn that stood on the place. He dismantled it. Someday, he will reassemble it, or use it to build that vacation house he has always been thinking of.

Could a young man do today what he was able - barely - to do in the 1960s? "No way," he says, a bit sadly. The price of fertilizer and seed, not to mention the land, has soared far beyond inflation.

Building the Boondocks was the most intense thing he ever did, and not one he'd want to do again.

Except, well, he did build a couple holes on his place near Ortonville, and recently eyed some land, until Marcy brought him up short.

"Look all you want, but just remember: One golf course per husband."



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