Serious green: In addition to a golf club, Congaree features 26 guest rooms and a schoolhouse for the children its charity benefits
Jasper County, South Carolina, is only a 45-minute drive from the low-country resort town of Hilton Head, but it’s a world removed. Ageing churches and family homesteads whose better days have long passed are interspersed with dilapidated trailer homes and overgrown yards strewn with junk and broken-down cars. It’s not where one would expect to find the most exclusive and inspirational new golf club in America, one where philanthropy drives a visionary membership model.
Congaree, which quietly opened this spring, was founded on a former 18th-century rice plantation by two of the 200 richest men in America—Texas billionaires Dan Friedkin and Robert McNair—and named after a Native American tribe that once called the area home. The club’s calling is to use golf to bring together an international network of influential people passionate about changing lives, both locally and globally.
“We wanted to create a club that at the core of its mission makes meaningful differences in the lives of young people and attracts golfers who not only want to play a wonderful golf course but who also want to be actively involved in our philanthropic goals,” says the 52-year-old Friedkin, who carries a tidy 6.9 handicap and is chairman of the Friedkin Group, a privately held consortium of businesses in the automotive, luxury hospitality, golf and entertainment industries.
Despite Congaree’s forward-thinking mission, its membership process is old-fashioned: By invitation and referral only. There are technically only two members of the club: Friedkin and McNair, owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans. Everyone else affiliated with Congaree—from an NFL Hall of Famer to a Grammy Award-winning country singer—is invited to become an “ambassador” on an annual basis. All share a love for golf and a passion for helping others.
Playing through: Tom Fazio (with co-founder Dan Friedkin, right) designed the course among 300-year-old oak trees with no cart paths and no tee markers
Ambassadors are encouraged to make a significant financial contribution to the charitable Congaree Foundation and also take an active role in interacting with youth at the club and sharing life experiences—good and bad. Congaree’s aim is to offer educational, vocational and golf instructions to underprivileged youth, whether that’s by helping area schools or through its Global Golf Initiative, which brings in high-school-age kids from around the world who aspire to play golf in college but don’t have the support, financial or otherwise.
The person who would prefer to cut a cheque for several million dollars? That’s not what Congaree is about. If you’re hoping to join the club for yourself alone, you’re probably not the right fit.
“It is very satisfying to hear our ambassadors express how proud they are to be a part of something like this that transcends a mere golf experience,” says Friedkin, a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society and chairman of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Commission. “They aren’t just looking to make a contribution to the Congaree Foundation and enjoy great golf. They’re committed to helping the Congaree kids in any way they can.”
Congaree’s Global Golf Initiative started this June with teenagers from the United States and overseas. To identify prospective participants, the club turned to PGA pros around the world and invited them to be club ambassadors, with World Golf Hall of Famer Mark O’Meara, a two-time major champion, and other touring pros among them.
Congaree’s aim is to offer educational, vocational and golf instructions to underprivileged youth
As for the club itself: The course at Congaree was built by the renowned architect Tom Fazio, who has 24 layouts ranked among Golfweek’s 100 best modern courses in the United States. Designed in the spirit of the Heathland courses found in Britain and the sandbelt courses of Australia, Congaree has a natural look, lends itself to the ground game and plays firm and fast, unlike many of the overly lush designs favoured throughout the country today.
Friedkin’s edict to Bruce Davidson and John McNeely, the co-directors of golf at Congaree, was to find a terrific piece of land accessible from the Eastern seaboard. After scouting a number of possible locations, they selected the inland property in Jasper County, with its sandy soil, perfect for a golf course, and its peaceful hunting grounds and historic feel. The lay and look of the land evokes the feel of some of the country’s best courses, particularly Pine Valley in New Jersey and Pinehurst in North Carolina. When Fazio first visited the 3,200-acre property, dotted with longleaf pine, native wetlands and bottomland hardwood forests, he was blown away. “You guys hit the mother lode here,” he said.
“We couldn’t be more excited about the golf course Tom Fazio designed. However, we also recognise it is a process that is never finished, and it requires constant improvement,” says Friedkin, who also owns the pristine Diamond Creek Golf Club in the mountains of North Carolina. “The opening has been a tremendous accomplishment, but it is a dynamic thing, and that is part of the fun of it.”
There are no cart paths on the course, as Congaree is a walking property. It’s a theme that extends beyond the fairways, with ambassadors and guests encouraged to walk the grounds, perhaps in step with the ghosts also said to call the historic land home. The club’s main house sits at the end of a mile-long gravel driveway that goes through a gauntlet of ancient live oaks with Spanish moss waving gently in gnarled branches.
The house was rebuilt after the original burnt down during Union General William T Sherman’s Civil War march across the South. There’s also an inn and a newly constructed whitewashed lodge that has a restaurant, a bar and an inviting covered back porch that looks out on the remarkable new golf course behind it. Other historic buildings have been preserved and updated, from cozy guest cottages to a two-room schoolhouse complete with a working bell in the steeple.
And every time a “Congaree kid” is at the school, the ambassadors on the property will know. That bell will ring.
(This story appears in the 15 September, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)