It’s difficult to imagine two more discordant places than Sea Island and Ridgeland, which are separated by so much more than the two-hour drive on I-95. The Georgia barrier island is home to the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic, to one of golf’s most upscale resorts, and to many of its finest players. Ridgeland is … well, not.
While Sea Island did its part for charity at this week’s Tour stop, which has raised more than $13 million since 2010, Ridgeland — seat of South Carolina’s Jasper County, one of the poorest in the nation — is where you’ll find a new kind of golf philanthropy.
Located behind a wooden gate along a two-lane road in the woods, Congaree isn’t a golf club in the conventional sense. There is a course — actually, one of the best that Tom Fazio ever signed his name to — but that is almost incidental. At Congaree, golf is the route, not the destination.
It opened in 2017 and has only two official members — its billionaire founders Dan Friedkin and the late Robert McNair, who owned the Houston Texans. What it has instead are invited ambassadors, people prominent in their industries who aren’t so much expected to pay cash as donate their time and mentorship. Their number includes titans of industry and golf Hall of Famers like Masters winner Mark O’Meara.
Each year, the Global Golf Initiative at Congaree identifies dozens of high school students from around the world who have the talent to play college golf, but who lack the financial, parental or social advantages that kids from places like Sea Island might enjoy. The intense four-week program is a mix of educational, vocational and golf instruction, including college preparation, life lessons, counseling, fitness training and even club fitting. When they leave, Congaree’s advisors and counselors shadow them through the end of high school and into college.
“Mr Friedkin’s vision was for Congaree to bring together like-minded individuals who played golf, loved golf and realized a philanthropic club was a conduit to be able to make a difference in the lives of deserving and under-privileged children,” says Bruce Davidson, a former Tour pro from Scotland who is now Congaree’s co-director of golf and, with his colleague John McNeely, the driving force behind the project.
Built on an eighteenth-century rice plantation, Congaree’s collection of whitewashed clapboard buildings includes a schoolhouse that looks plucked from a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel. Inside, its walls bear the photos of the 50-odd kids who have so far been drawn from around the world. One is a young Irish girl, and when she was chosen to come to Congaree, Davidson got a phone call from her mother. “This has to be a scam, right?” the disbelieving parent asked. “Things like this don’t happen to our family.” Her daughter is now playing golf at an American university.
For some of these kids, Congaree is as much respite from today as it is a promise for tomorrow. Davidson points to a photo of an earnest-looking, towheaded boy from the Midwest. Two weeks ago, his father took his own life. “We will measure our success in terms of how many lives we can affect positively,” Davidson says. “There’s never been any mention whatsoever of financial return. That’s what differentiates Dan Friedkin from anyone else I’ve ever met.”
Congaree has been quietly lobbying to host the 2025 Presidents Cup, an event that would train a global spotlight on its core mission. The odds are obviously stacked against it. Presidents Cups tend to visit major metropolitan areas, not backwoods places like Jasper County. There are many factors that will inform the PGA Tour’s eventual choice of venue for ’25. Perhaps one of those considerations ought to be the value of using the Presidents Cup to honor golf’s noble tradition of creating educational pathways for those who lack the access that is the first step to success.
Golfweek.com, November 24, 2019.