Built by billionaires, Congaree has only 1 member but a grand purpose
Edward C. Robison III/Courtesy Congaree
Congaree is a stunning golf course, one of the best in South Carolina, and this week it gets its first ever PGA Tour event, the Palmetto Championship. That’s big, but that’s not the sole purpose of this story — or the club. Far from it.
Congaree Golf Club opened in 2017 in Ridgeland, S.C., the brainchild of billionaire businessmen Dan Friedkin and the late Bob McNair. They had a vision for more than just 18 great golf holes designed by Tom Fazio, so they established the club’s charitable arm, the Congaree Foundation, which is headlined by the Congaree Global Golf Initiative. The latter is a collegiate preparatory program for underserved high schoolers who aspire to play college golf.
One week is not going to change their lives, but it’s that week with the two years following that changes their lives.
Through the Congaree Global Golf Initiative, 36 students around the age of 16 spend a week on site over the summer working with the club’s bevy of experts in an effort to prepare themselves to beat the many barriers of playing collegiate athletics.
“That’s our stated goal, to give kids educational and vocational opportunities,” says Bruce Davidson, Congaree’s Director of Golf, a title he shares with John McNeely. Davidson and McNeely were both involved in building the club and its programs with Friedkin and McNair. “We are trying to get these kids into colleges in America, where they can study and earn a degree, and at the same time play golf.”
The club opened with two members — its owners — and now has one, after McNair’s passing in 2018. There are, however, ambassadors, prominent figures in their respective fields and well-connected industry types who join via invite only. They not only promote the club but lend their time and capital. There are more than 200 ambassadors, plus another 100 or so honorary and professional ambassadors, guys like Nick Price, Tom Watson and Mark O’Meara.
“Ambassadors is a word we chose because the spreading of the word and what we do with our philanthropy here, our ambassadors really truly are ambassadors,” Davidson says. “Not only for the club, but for golf itself. We are very proud of them and I think they are very proud of the club.”
The inaugural Global Golf Initiative class started immediately in 2017. On site, students are put through the gauntlet. They meet with athletic, academic and fitness advisors, golf instructors, get fitted for clubs, learn how to write a college application letter and practice public speaking, among other important skills.
Soon after one summer session ends, planning for the next begins. Every First Tee chapter in the U.S. and every member country of the International Golf Federation nominates a student for Congaree’s program, and Congaree staffers sift through every application to find the most suitable candidates. They’ll look into students’ financial and family situations, academics and golf game before inviting the next group in for a summer.
The week on site goes fast, but it’s the continuation that’s key. Staff keeps in touch and checks in on students to make sure they are keeping up on their studies, training and more.
“They are only here a week, but they are a Congaree kid, and if you are a Congaree kid and abide by your charter, which is to work hard, be nice to people and get to college, then we’ll support you forever,” Davidson says. “One week is not going to change their lives, but it’s that week with the two years following [before they graduate high school] that changes their lives.”
To date, 68 students have graduated from the program, and 27 who have already graduated from high school have received college golf scholarships valued at roughly $2.2 million total. Eighty-five percent of all graduates have attended college.
So this week Congaree hosts Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and the PGA Tour. Later this summer it will host 36 new, eager and promising students.
“Our ambassadors come in here and have a great time, play a world-class golf course. The food, the accommodations, everything is top-class,” Davidson says. “But the vision of Mr. Friedkin was that our club was going to make a difference in the world of golf and a difference in the world of underprivileged children.”