TGJ No. 22 Congaree Oh The Places They'll Go

Oh, The Places They’ll Go

Founded on a dream, Congaree is shaking up the country club model to give players like M.J. Leonard Jr. a chance at theirs

No one will sneak up on you at Sergeant Jasper Golf Club. Gas-powered golf carts and mostly treeless fairways make for plentiful shouts of “Fore!” and friendly waves across the bunched holes. The fairways are shaggy, brown spots dot the greens and there are a few rickety bridges that don’t inspire confidence as folks motor over them. The vibe is quintessential muni: duffers and their kids grabbing $1.50 Gatorades and 50-cent “pre-tested” balls before rumbling out for a quick nine. The Sarge nearly closed back in 2020, but the tee sheet is filling up again, and its owners are promising more efforts to spruce up the only public golf course here in Jasper County, South Carolina, population just north of 29,000.

Across Bees Creek Road and about 20 minutes up U.S. Route 278, those owners also run the Sarge’s polar opposite. Congaree is über private, shares an architect and bunker edges with the über-private club two hours northwest in Augusta and has already hosted two PGA Tour events since opening in 2017. But this dichotomy is all part of their plan.

High school students in the county get to play Sergeant Jasper for free. There is no dress code, which means plenty of kids and parents alike in jean shorts and untucked polos. The week I visited Congaree, teens played in new electric carts and matching uniforms. The adults with them were professional coaches. The two scenes were nothing alike, but, in the eyes of Bruce Davidson and John McNeely, it’s all the same.

TGJ No. 22 Congaree Oh The Places They'll Go

M.J. Leonard Jr. was going for it. Sitting 1-up on the final hole of his nine-hole match, it was a dangerous play. The ninth hole at Congaree is a long par 4, with water down the right and deep bunkers surrounding most of the green. But Leonard believed he could pull it off.

“He tried a trick shot,” said his opponent, Karlie Campbell. “And it went in the water.”

“I wanted to hit a little slinger hook with a pitching wedge,” Leonard said, “and that thing did not hook.”

“It was the straightest ball you hit all week!” Campbell roared, and the pair of high school juniors fell out laughing.

Leonard and Campbell were gleefully recounting nearly every shot from their match the previous day, admiring the great ones, like Campbell’s drive on No. 1—playing from the same tees, she was only a few yards short of Leonard; “She’s long,” he said—and laughing at the ones that got away, like Leonard’s now-infamous slinger. They’d both made double bogey on No. 9, which gave Leonard the win, but it was clear that the joy was in the competition.

“It was one of my favorite times of the week,” Leonard said.

Leonard is Black and lives in Atlanta. Campbell is white and from rural Ethridge, Tennessee. They had never met before arriving at the weeklong Congaree Global Golf Initiative (CGGI) camp, but by the time I sat down with them in the clubhouse on their last evening, they could have fooled anyone into thinking they’d been besties for years.

“It was scary coming here,” Campbell said in her thick country drawl. “But we had so much fun. It was just us and the staff; it was like our own little world. I was homesick at first, but now I don’t want to leave.”

Since launching in 2017, the CGGI has provided more than 100 high school golfers with an accelerated path to college scholarships. The one-week program identifies dozens of underprivileged high school players from around the world who have the potential to play in college, then arms them with the coaching, both academic and athletic, to earn a place to play. Campers are given the kind of support team that typically only the wealthiest kids can afford: performance coaches, academic counselors, a club fitting. A former college coach is on staff to use his deep Rolodex of contacts to connect players to current coaches. The success rate is staggering: More than 95% of the players who have come through CGGI have attended college. They have accrued more than $2 million in total scholarships. 

“I don’t think many high schools can prepare you enough for trying to play in college,” said Campbell, who learned the game on a municipal course with her grandfather. “I was so stressed out before I came here because I was kind of clueless about the process. But the amount of support we’ve got here is amazing. Knowing we’re not doing it alone is so helpful; it’s a huge weight lifted.”

“Walking through the recruitment process with everyone here has made my dreams seem more attainable than I thought they were,” said Leonard, who wants to play at an HBCU and at one point looked out the clubhouse window to the live oaks shading the course and admitted he’d never seen this much green space. “It’s helped me want it even more.”

Midway through the conversation, we were joined by Elias Mardeni Jr., a tall, wispy big hitter from Costa Rica. Like Leonard and Campbell, he’d shown up to Congaree a few days earlier as a nervous, wide-eyed stranger. But by this point he’d become an old friend, cozying up next to them on the clubhouse couch and diving right into a debate over the seventh hole. It had gobbled up Leonard and Campbell, but Mardeni shook his head like the tricky par 3 was a piece of cake. “Just hit it over the water,” he laughed.

Perhaps even more so than his new friends, Mardeni had begun the week with no idea how to find an American university to attend. Now?

“I want to go somewhere in the South, where it’s sunny,” he said with a smile. “I’m ready to chase this dream.”

Ken Hummel had no idea he was about to change golf history. He was just telling his Army buddy about how much he loved the game. His friend, who’d led point on their company’s patrols through Viet Cong territory, thought golf was a “sissy” sport. But, upon returning home from Vietnam, something about their conversation stuck. At 21 years old, with not much to do, Larry Nelson grabbed some old clubs and went out to a local driving range. A series of purely struck shots later, he found himself deep into Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. In 1977, six years removed from the front lines, Nelson qualified for the PGA Tour. By 1987, he was a three-time major champion and a future World Golf Hall of Famer.

Nelson’s case is extreme, the stuff of movies, but in terms of golf’s unique way of dramatically altering the direction of one’s life, it’s clear McNeely and Davidson believe they’re not far behind. 

“We were both the first in our families to go to college, because of sport,” Davidson said as we reclined in Congaree’s simple but elegant clubhouse sitting room across from its impressive wine cellar.

Davidson—who, along with McNeely, is listed as the executive director of the Congaree Foundation—hails from a small town in the Aberdeen area of Scotland. He likes to joke that he got one scholarship offer to play golf, from a small school in Houston, while McNeely got upward of 50 and ended up going to North Carolina State—to play basketball. “He’ll never tell you, but that man’s played in a Final Four!” Davidson said, still enjoying his well-practiced line.

He’s been telling this story for decades: After college, both men ended up in the Houston area working to be PGA professionals under legendary instructor Dick Harmon, and they’ve been best friends for more than 40 years.

They ended up together at the prestigious River Oaks Country Club, and that’s where the magic began to happen.

“We always wanted to end our careers doing a club together where we could help the next generation of golfers in the same way the game helped us,” Davidson said. “We wanted to find a way to trampoline kids like me and John to where we landed. There is so much luck and happenstance for many kids to get a golf scholarship. We wanted to create a pathway for less-privileged children to really shine in the process of college application and open some doors for them.” 

From left to right: M.J. Leonard Jr., Elias Mardeni Jr. Karlie Campbell

While they conjured exactly how their idea of a philanthropy-based club could work, Davidson continued to give lessons to the Friedkin family at River Oaks. Thomas Friedkin had made his fortune in the automobile business, and since 1995 his son Dan has led the Friedkin Group, a privately held consortium of businesses including one of the world’s largest independent Toyota distributors, the Auberge Resorts Collection and the AS Roma soccer team. A multibillionaire, Dan had already brought golf properties into his fold. Then he presented Davidson and McNeely with a Larry Nelson–esque life-changing opportunity. 

“He wanted to do a golf club from scratch,” Davidson said. “That’s when John and I pitched our philanthropic idea to him.”

Here, Davidson launched into another practiced but heartfelt tale. “Our idea wouldn’t have been anything like [Congaree],” he said. “We thought we could gather 200 to 300 people together and had no clue beyond that how to make it work financially. So, the genesis of the idea doesn’t really mean anything. I’m sure someone thought of a mobile phone before a company actually did it. What matters is how you take that idea and put it into operation. Mr. Friedkin liked it and had a bigger vision.”

At this point, McNeely was coaching Bob McNair, another Houston-based billionaire. Through that relationship, McNair got on board, and the notion of a club focused on charity first was no longer a pitch on paper.

“They gave us a platform,” Davidson said, “but [Dan] said it’s got to be the best golf course built in America in the last 100 years. So, no pressure.”

TGJ No. 22 Congaree Oh The Places They'll Go

Congaree is the name of the Native American tribe who lived in what is now South Carolina until around the 18th century, when a sprawling rice plantation was erected on the sandy, live-oak-strewn soil. Several of its original clapboard buildings were still standing when Davidson, McNeely and Tom Fazio first walked the property.

They eventually looked at 13 other sites, but there was something special about this patch of gently rolling hills off a quiet two-lane road in a tiny town called Ridgeland, the Jasper County seat.

“We looked at several [sites] where courses had been built and failed, but we came to feel it was better to birth our own course, because [on sites with existing courses] you’re always working around someone else’s mistake,” Davidson said. “This place didn’t have an ocean view, but it had the right soil.”

Davidson has been living in the U.S. for decades, but he’s still a Scot. It was vitally important to him that this new course be firm and fast. 

“We had an unbelievable opportunity here with the sand,” he said. “That’s the way we wanted it: ball on the ground. It’s a lost art in this country, and it shouldn’t be, because the majority of the people here need the ball to roll.”

Fazio set to work, clearing hundreds of pines, relocating several massive live oaks and moving tons of sandy soil. Unlike his previous designs at Shadow Creek and Fallen Oak, where it’s clear they have been manufactured into the place, his work at Congaree left a course that appears much more contoured to the original land, with natural waste areas married to the sharp-edged bunkering he’s known for. It’s got a whiff of Augusta National and a dash of the Australian Sandbelt, but it’s still all South Carolina low country.

All the original buildings they found on the site were kept, refurbished and repurposed, down to the clapboard architectural theme. The campus, including the clubhouse and a series of cabins where visitors and campers can stay, is full of modern Southern charm. The jewel is a functioning schoolhouse for CGGI students that Golfweek’s Eamon Lynch described as “plucked from a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.”

No doubt to the delight of Friedkin, Davidson and McNeely, the course opened in 2017 and was immediately recognized as a gem, earning awards, plaudits and high rankings in several of golf’s glossies. Lynch called it one of Fazio’s best.

In 2021, architecture aficionados who had been clamoring to see this Southern upstart finally got a proper view when Congaree hosted the PGA Tour’s Palmetto Championship. The event was hastily pulled together after the Canadian Open was canceled due to COVID, but the course showed well enough for the Tour to return in 2022, using it as yet another late replacement, this time for the CJ Cup.

It was jarring for me to first see it on television, then walk the course with no tournament infrastructure or galleries, just the CGGI campers and staff. Their reviews weren’t that far off from the pros’: tough, fair, beautiful. The course was immaculate, which was not a surprise considering the full maintenance staff and the fact that the club has only one living member.

Dan Friedkin isn’t the only person who plays Congaree. But, technically, he is the only member. (McNair was the other, until he passed in 2018.) In order to fuel the club’s unique mission, Friedkin, Davidson and McNeely reimagined the traditional membership structure. Today the club has roughly 200 ambassadors, including professionals like Mark O’Meara and Lucas Glover as well as industry titans. Each is vetted by the club to ensure they understand the mission of philanthropy and mentorship they’re tasked with carrying into their affluent worlds.

Ambassadors know that their dues go to funding programs like the CGGI, and they are encouraged to do even more to push the club’s mission forward. Davidson says the ambassadors have already raised more than $15 million for the Congaree Foundation.

Not all of that money goes to the CGGI. Congaree has also made a full commitment to the community outside its gates. The most obvious example is at Sergeant Jasper Golf Club. At the 2021 RBC Heritage at Harbour Town, Glover organized a fundraising effort he dubbed #RechargeTheSarge. Davis Love III, Stewart Cink, Harold Varner III, J.T. Poston and Brandt Snedeker joined Glover in donating money for every birdie and eagle made during the tournament, and they raised more than $17,000 for a new irrigation system.

The Sarge has hosted events for the First Tee of the Lowcountry, in addition to simply being an open, safe and inexpensive place for the community at large to come play. 

Beyond that, Congaree has provided funding well into the six figures to support the local Boys & Girls Club. The foundation has also worked extensively with the Lowcountry Food Bank to create drive-through food distributions and fresh-food markets for families in need.

TGJ No. 22 Congaree Oh The Places They'll Go

The land where Congaree sits has a complicated and difficult history: smallpox and slavery largely wiped out the Native Americans, with enslavement continuing at the plantation that was later established. But it is clear that the team at Congaree, from Davidson and McNeely down, believes they’ve built a relentless force for positive change.

“We knew [Jasper County] was a poor area when we bought this place, but, hand to the Bible, we didn’t know it was the poorest county in South Carolina,” Davidson said. “I believe this was fate. It was a good place, not just because of the soil. Because we can make a difference.”

At the final dinner of the week, the CGGI campers and staff sat down to celebrate all that had taken place both on and off the course. It was Congaree to a tee: simple but delicious local food; laughter mixed with some poignant speeches from Davidson, McNeely and others driving home how serious they are about success. This week was merely the beginning of their journey: The Congaree team would be there for them through the college-entry process once they returned home.

As the sun set over the course, the students spilled out onto the 18th green for some group pictures. The staff came out as well, and McNeely stood off to the side, full of pride and smiles, watching the tangible results of a dream he’d shared with a friend years ago.

“You never know where this game will take you,” he said quietly. “Who knows what the future holds for these kids?”

The adults all went back inside to finish our drinks and wrap up a memorable evening. Campbell went sprinting past us to fetch a putter. There was a sliver of light left, and a putting contest had broken out. “Excuse me,” she said politely, but in a hurry. “We’re gonna beat those boys tonight!”

TGJ No. 22 Congaree Oh The Places They'll Go