A new model of philanthropy

Exclusive golf club gives back with intensive outreach

Story by Lisa Allen + Photos by Crescent Moon Pictures

Narnia exists just outside of Ridgeland. The Lowcountry version of a magical land is Congaree, an international golf club with a central focus of helping underserved but promising teens succeed in life.

Seventh hole at Congaree
Native sand surrounds the expansive tee box on the par 3 seventh hole at Congaree, a low-key private golf club in Jasper County.

The club was founded by Texas businessmen Dan Friedkin, chairman of The Friedkin Group, a privately held consortium of automotive, luxury hospitality, golf and entertainment businesses; and the late Bob McNair, owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans and chairman of The McNair Group. They wanted this club to be built around philanthropy and it was fortuitous for the local community that the perfect plot of land happened to be in Jasper County. They spared no expense.

The course amid 3,000 acres is spectacular. The meticulously preserved 1860s estate house and replicated estate outbuildings that can house 40-some members, called “ambassadors” are gorgeous. Tom Fazio designed a stunning links-style course. But more importantly, what “Congaree Kids” will learn is there are people who care about them and will support them far beyond golf. That’s the Narnia aspect: the Congaree Foundation and its Congaree Global Golf Initiative.

A massive oak tree overlooks the green on hole No. 7. More than 70 oak trees were carefully displaced and relocated to ideal spots throughout the course.
An aerial shot featuring views of the Clubhouse, 18th hole and practice area nestled among the Longleaf pines of the Lowcountry.

“We want to give them an education and we use golf to help them achieve that. Education is the goal, not a career in golf,” said Bruce Davidson, director of golf. “Only a half of one percent of Division I golfers go onto the PGA Tour,” he said. “That’s not our objective. There are other camps for that.”

Nominations for the Congaree Global Golf Initiative come from ambassadors, First Tee programs around the country and golf professionals around the world. Many students don’t know they were nominated, and the foundation coordinator sometimes has to reassure the families that the offer is real.

The historic main house (top) dates back to the 18th century and greets ambassadors and their guests as they arrive. A school house at the club (above) serves local Boys & Girls Club members and participants in the Congaree Global Golf Initiative, tailored towards underserved students.

The students are flown to the club for a week, where they go through fitness training, SAT prep sessions, public speaking and college admissions letter-writing exercises, table manners, club fitting, guidance counseling, and coaching. When they’re in the 1800s-style schoolhouse, the bell is rung and ambassadors that range from former NFL players to Grammy-winning artists to Wall Street titans will stop in a give them some priceless advice. Jamy Champenoy, a Houston-based college advisor, and Lorne Kelly, the athletics advisor, then work with the students to help them identify and apply to  golf programs and schools that best match the students’ interests and skill sets.

The first year, the club invited six international and six American students; the second year 17 kids attended; and the goal this year is 30 students over three weeks. The program already has raised $6.2 million just from ambassadors alone.

Situated on an 18th century estate, and surrounded by more than 2,000 acres of fishing lakes and Longleaf Pine Forests, Congaree is a world-class golf club with a philanthropic mission at its core. Its mission is to help talented, financially ­disadvantaged golfers get a college education.

But it isn’t just a week and they’re done.

“They’re Congaree Kids for life,” Davidson said. “We track their success on the golf team, in class and overall.”

That’s why they limit the number of students. They want to be able to dedicate the time necessary for them to excel.

Above: Perfectly manicured bunkers border many of the greens at Congaree, as seen on hole No. 8. Below: An instructor gives tips to a student.

Locally, the club built a driving range at Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School. They realized that many area students don’t have a way to get to the club, so they went to the students. The new golf class now has 220 students, teens who likely would not have been exposed to golf otherwise, Davidson said. The local Boys and Girls Club meets in the schoolhouse.

Because of that giving focus, Congaree is selective in whom it invites to become ambassadors. They want people who want to get involved in helping students, not just work on their golf game.

After all, Narnia isn’t for everyone.

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