Inside how the Palmetto Championship at Congaree came to lifeSpotlight shines on South Carolina and charitable aspect of Congaree Golf Club
June 09, 2021
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
Flyover: Congaree Golf Club
Three months, give or take a day or two. That’s how long this week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree had taken to go from idea to reality.
The open date on the PGA TOUR became available on March 9 when the RBC Canadian Open announced that it would not be played for the second straight year due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The disclosure set off a burst of activity that essentially began with a meeting in South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster’s office. Among those attending was Ty Votaw, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of the PGA TOUR; Duane Parrish, director of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism; and Bruce Davidson, co-director of golf at Congaree Golf Club.
As excited as he was about the prospect of partnering with the TOUR to get more exposure for travel and tourism in his state, Parrish admits to some trepidation.
“One of my questions in the meeting was can we pull off a golf tournament 90 days?” Parrish recalls. “And the answer was, yes. They said they'd done it a couple of times in 2020 when they had the move tournaments because of COVID.
“And so, they gave me a lot of faith and confidence they could.”
Within weeks, and with the support of the state legislature, South Carolina, which boasts more than 350 golf courses, had committed $6 million in sports marketing funds to the tournament. The Palmetto Championship at Congaree is the third TOUR event to be held in the state in the past three months, joining the RBC Heritage in April and the PGA Championship in May.
Congaree owner Dan Friedkin was also on board. He had a unique golf course to showcase – a Tom Fazio design, which just opened in the fall of 2017 and has quickly climbed Golf Digest’s rankings, clocking in at No. 39 among the 2021-22 list of America’s 100 Greatest. And Congaree is second only to the Ocean Course at Kiawah in the best-in-the-state list.
More importantly, perhaps, is the story of philanthropy the club has to tell with its Congaree Global Golf Initiative. The club’s roughly 200 members, who are referred to as ambassadors, are committed to identifying and mentoring deserving, underserved teenagers who want to play college golf in a three-year program that takes the rising juniors from high school to university.
With the golf course and funding secured, it was time to make the Palmetto Championship at Congaree happen. The event was announced April 2, which was about the time Meghan Costello, who works for the TOUR’s Championship Management division, learned she would be the tournament director for an event that would begin on June 7.
Not that the condensed timeline worried her. Earlier this year, Costello served in the same capacity for the World Golf Championships-Workday Championship at the Concession – another one-time event that moved from Mexico City to Bradenton, Florida, due to logistical challenges presented by COVID in February.
“Well, I'll be honest,” she says when asked about her newest assignment. “We had just come off of running the WGC at Concession and we had about 42 days to plan that event.
“So, I thought, wow -- we have lots of time at about 85 days to get this one done.”
Costello made her first site visit to Congaree the week after the Masters. The property, while somewhat remote -- located roughly 35-45 minutes or so from Bluffton and Beaufort in South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia, – is expansive and offered many options for positioning things like the TV compound and parking as well as routing spectators.A look at the eighth hole at Congaree Golf Club. (PGA TOUR Entertainment)
The biggest challenge, Costello says, was finding enough volunteers to work as marshals and with the ShotLink scoring system. The RBC Heritage team helped by sending out email blasts to their volunteers to see if they’d be interested in working at Congaree. Turns out more than 750 volunteers have committed, many of whom live in the Sun City retirement community in Bluffton.
Spectators will be allowed – and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who grew up in South Carolina, will undoubtedly be among their favorites. Perhaps fittingly for a walking-only course, there are no bleachers, which made set-up easier, but the state and Congaree will have hospitality tents around the 18th green.
When the tournament is over, Parrish, who is on the board of the RBC Heritage, expects the economic benefit to the state to be more than $50 million. He says roughly 25% of the SCPRT marketing is centered around golf of some sort – particularly in the Lowcountry and on the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach.
That marketing, though, is normally focused east of the Mississippi River. The Palmetto Championship at Congaree provides national exposure with 32 commercial spots over the four days of the event, 16 each on Golf Channel and CBS.
Parrish acknowledges that seeing his state host three TOUR events in three months – along with this week’s BMW Charity Pro-Am presented by SYNNEX Corporation on the Korn Ferry Tour – probably won’t happen again in his lifetime.
“Some may see South Carolina, what we have, for the first time,” says Parrish, who noted that rounds played in the state are up more than 20% over the last year. “So that's a really big benefit for us.”
Granted, the general public can’t call Congaree and get a tee time at the course that in 2018 was named Golf Digest’s “Best New Private Club.” But the telecast will offer a glimpse behind the scenes at a course that is fast developing a reputation as one of the country’s best.
Davidson, who is from Scotland, compares Congaree to a heathland course like Sunningdale or Walton Heath in the United Kingdom. Think a hybrid of a links and parkland layout, with native grasses and pines and 130 acres of sandy waste areas to navigate.
“It's a Sandy subsoil, but not necessarily as undulating as linksland tends to be because it's beside the sea,” he says. “It plays firm and fast. It's fiery and Tom did an outstanding job. Every golf hole is different. Every golf hole is memorable.
“And other than a couple of forced carries you can play golf on the ground here, which is unusual in this country.”
Friedkin wanted Fazio to build a course that would have an opportunity like this to challenge the world’s best. In fact, a bid was made to host the 2026 Presidents Cup and while Medinah actually got the nod, the groundwork with the TOUR had been laid.
The philanthropic mission of the club and its ambassadors meshes well with that of the TOUR, which has raised more than $3 billion for charity. Beyond the CGGI, the club, which is located South Carolina’s poorest county, is a big supporter of the local food bank and worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs to set up the Congaree Career Launch Program where high school students can learn about financial literacy and career development to prepare for the future.
Congaree also built a driving range and practice area at Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School where more than 250 students now hone their skills. And the Congaree Foundation has purchased and helped refresh Sergeant Jasper Golf Club, nine-hole facility that is open to the public and where three local high school teams can play for free.
With an uber-exclusive course to introduce to the world on television and a remarkable charitable story to tell, the partnership with the TOUR and the state of South Carolina was a win-win for Congaree. Now that Johnson, Brooks Koepka, et al, have arrived, the final piece of the puzzle has been played.
“When those first fans come through the gate on Thursday, it’s going to be something special,” Davidson says.