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June 2017

Congaree Contributes

You couldn’t find it on a bet. That’s how the owners want it. When you drive north out of Savannah, Georgia, deep into the woodlands of South Carolina where the smells of the lowcountry hit you in the face like a wet shrimp net, your first thought is, “It can’t be out here, can it?”

In fact, Congaree, the newest and many will say greatest Tom Fazio-designed golf course, is so far removed from civilization that the pavement ends before you get there. It sits on what was the 3,000-acre Davant Plantation, which General Sherman burned to ashes and tears in 1865. Julia Roberts filmed a forgettable movie called Something to Talk About out there, but other than that, the property sat relatively empty and quiet for half a century or more.

Then two billionaires came into the fold. In one corner is Dan Friedkin, chairman of The Friedkin Group, a private conglomerate that includes everything from 150 Toyota dealerships to the Hotel Jerome in Aspen, Colorado, and Diamond Creek Golf Club in Banner Elk, North Carolina. In the other is Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans and chairman of The McNair Group, which owns The Golf Club at Briar’s Creek near Charleston, South Carolina. The pair united to buy the place and build one of the most exclusive golf clubs in the world.

There are no signs, no entry statements, no guardhouses or waterfalls. Just a locked white gate on the edge of a sand-and-shale road no wider than a cart path. At the end is a spectacular golf club and hunting preserve with cottages and a small inn that, in total, includes 26 guest rooms.

On its surface, “Billionaires Build Exclusive Golf Club” is about as “Dog Bites Man” a story as you’ll find. But what makes Congaree (and there is no “Golf Club” or “Club” after the name) so special is the model Friedkin and McNair have created. There are only two members, the founders. Everyone else is an “ambassador,” asked to join by invitation or referral. There is no initiation fee, only dues. However, ambassadors are strongly encouraged to donate to the Congaree Foundation, which is designed to promote education and vocational training for underprivileged kids.

Jasper County, South Carolina, where the course sits, is among the poorest areas in America with 23 percent of the population existing below the poverty line, many well below. Driving to the course through the notorious I-95 Corridor, you’ll find dilapidated trailers and shanty shacks almost completely hidden behind overgrown brush and a curtain of Spanish moss. McNair and Friedkin want the children in those residences brought into the light.

“We’re not trying to sell anybody anything,” says Bruce Davidson, Congaree’s co-director of golf. “What we want is a network of people that commit to helping. (Ambassadors) are invited in on an annual basis. We want these people to come in and commit.”

Golf has been used to generate social change before. East Lake Golf Club and the East Lake Foundation in Atlanta, created by developer Tom Cousins, is exhibit A. But East Lake is about corporations doing their civic duty. Congaree is about wealthy and successful individuals spending time mentoring kids in need. If you want to write a big check and be left alone, this is not your club.

“We want people to be here for the right reasons,” Davidson explains. “Becoming an ambassador means being involved and supporting a mission that transcends golf.”

The course has no tee markers, no tee times, and looks like nothing Fazio has done before. It’s far more Royal Melbourne than Shadow Creek or Lake Nona. And there’s an old schoolhouse that has been refurbished. How it will be used remains an open question.

The commitment is not vague, however. The first students arrive in June. “They will leave here thinking they have a chance,” Davidson says. “We want to give these kids hope. Our challenge is to keep up with them. And we have ways to do that.”

—Steve Eubanks

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