Editor’s note: This story, which originally published on Oct. 21, is another installment in our annual Best Of The Year series. Throughout December, we will be bringing you the top GGP+ stories of 2022.
RIDGELAND, SOUTH CAROLINA | Fifteen miles and a seeming universe of opportunity and advantage separate Congaree Golf Club and the Sergeant Jasper golf course in this flat, tree-covered corner of South Carolina not far from the Atlantic Ocean.
Amid the live oaks and movie-set beauty at Congaree this week, the PGA Tour’s C.J. Cup has relocated from South Korea, bringing 15 of the top 20 players in the world rankings together for a rare autumn gathering of stars at a place so exclusive that it doesn’t have members, it has ambassadors who pay no initiation fee but agree to make philanthropic donations to the Congaree Foundation.
Some of those donations have gone to the Sergeant Jasper course, which was named in honor of a Revolutionary War hero and as different from Congaree as chocolate is from vanilla. Set in South Carolina’s largest and poorest county, “The Sarge,” as some locals know it, sits off a two-lane blacktop that eventually turns into a gravel road, and its nine holes are what have survived from an 18-hole private club that thrived in the days of bell-bottom trousers.
Aware of Congaree’s mission to improve the lives of others, a group of tour pros raised approximately $16,000 last year by committing $100 per birdie to the golf course fund, with 2021 RBC Heritage champion Stewart Cink matching the initial contribution after his victory at Harbour Town.
“With that $16,000, we got to put in an irrigation loop around the greens. We got the sprigs donated so we had some grass on the greens,” said John McNeely, managing director at Congaree and one of the visionaries behind the club that was created by billionaires Dan Friedkin and the late Bob McNair.
Now, The Sarge is available to five area school golf teams, a site for First Tee activities and gradually attracting more players as it struggles off its deathbed.
It’s not fancy and it’s not thriving, but it’s alive and has a strengthening pulse. There is no definition between fairways and rough, and both needed a fresh mowing on a quiet October afternoon this week. The story goes that a dwindling membership and persistent tax bill forced owners to sell off one hole at a time to pay what was owed, leaving it without its swimming pool and only half the holes with which it started years ago.
Though Congaree’s contribution hasn’t yet turned The Sarge into a pulsing golf destination, it does represent what sits at the core of the club.
“The mission is to help underprivileged and deserving young people,” McNeely said.
It’s why for two weeks each June two dozen youngsters from around the world come to Congaree as part of the club’s global golf initiative in which the focus is on building educational, life and golf skills, in that general order.
There is also an ongoing commitment to helping the people in the area, which is about 45 minutes from Hilton Head Island but sits on the opposite end of the economic spectrum.
That’s where the ambassadors come in. According to McNeely, the Congaree Foundation, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) under the U.S. Internal Revenue Service Code, has raised approximately $10 million to be spread throughout the region.
“We don’t use a lot of those dollars for the kids that want to go play golf somewhere,” McNeely said. “We use those dollars for the food bank program in the community. Those food bank programs are one of the most meaningful things we have done here.
“Every so often, they will put it out to the community. Anybody can come by, anybody that needs some help. They will get bags and bags of food. Our ambassadors go down there and give out food, sometimes $15 -20,000 a day.”
“Dan and Bob wanted to have something significant here. This has worked out great with the field and at this time of year. We’ll see where things go from here.” – John McNeely
All of this happens out of a golf club that sits tucked behind a white gate that has no signage and no intention of being found by anyone not intending to go there.
Once inside, however, it’s a little like stepping inside the gates at Augusta National, with a hidden and spectacular world awaiting.
“Really cool” is how Justin Thomas described the course, which was designed to play firm and fast the way the Australian Sandbelt courses play.
It is also remote, miles from the nearest cluster of hotels, restaurants or shops. Bucolic Beaufort is a 30-minute drive away, and Hilton Head a bit farther. There is not a large population base nearby, but there are more than enough people within an hour’s drive to convince the PGA Tour to bring two events here: the Palmetto Championship (in place of the RBC Canadian Open) in June 2021 and this C.J. Cup, which moved to the U.S. in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Perhaps it was audacious to believe that the PGA Tour would come here, but now it’s been here twice, helped by the shared efforts of public and private enterprises. An attempt to land at least one future Presidents Cup got a long listen but ultimately was rejected in favor of Chicago and St. Louis down the line.
Still, Congaree has landed a starring role on a spot where Julia Roberts, Robert Duvall and Dennis Quaid made a movie (Something To Talk About) in the mid-1990s.
“Dan and Bob wanted to have something significant here,” McNeely said. “This has worked out great with the field and at this time of year. We’ll see where things go from here.”
Not just at Congaree but at Sergeant Jasper golf course, the area food bank and beyond.
Photos: Ron Green Jr., Global Golf Post
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