Golden ticket to college golf
Congaree Global Golf Initiative helps pave way from high school to next level
June 07, 2021
By Cameron Morfit , PGATOUR.COM
- The Congaree Global Golf Initiative transforms the lives of players like Ford, Beggs and Cummins - pictured left to right - with the aim of helping kids receive college golf scholarships. (Submitted)
Anthony Ford had made history in high school but was unsure about the specifics of college golf.
Kharynton Beggs was coming off a back injury and personal tragedy and wondered if her dream of playing collegiate golf had already expired.
Maeve Cummins stood out in Northern Ireland but was apprehensive about coming to America.
All three are playing collegiately thanks in no small part to the Congaree Global Golf Initiative (CGGI), an immersive golf and life skills program at an 18th-century estate in the middle of South Carolina. CGGI transforms lives via equal parts education and game-improvement, with the aim of getting kids college golf scholarships. There’s instruction, club-fitting, and golf-specific stretching, but also SAT prep, time-management, and college placement.
The program fits nicely into the philanthropic mission of Congaree, a world-class golf club set amid 2,000 acres of Lowcountry longleaf pines and lakes.
“My mom didn’t believe it was real,” says Cummins, who was among the first wave of CGGI campers in 2017 and now plays for Div. II Carson-Newman University in Tennessee. “She was like, ‘This has to be a scam.’ I was all in, straightaway.”
Cummins, who as a freshman would win Women’s Golfer of the Year for the South Atlantic Conference, had received a gem of a letter. It read, in part: You have been recommended by a member of Congaree’s global network of ambassadors based on your interest in golf and for your dedication and desire to pursue higher education and a collegiate golf career.
She would get coaching from PGA professionals, on a Tom Fazio-designed course, with input from education and testing experts – including a seasoned college-placement professional. She and her mother, who had just picked her up from school to go play golf, were flabbergasted.
“I shot under par that day,” Cummins says. “I was on cloud nine. It was pretty cool.”
This week’s Palmetto Championship at Congaree will change the life of the player who wins it, but just as impactful will be CGGI, an all-expenses-paid golf immersive that prepares promising high schoolers to tee it up in college. The fifth season of the program will start when 15 new campers roll into Congaree on the Monday after the tournament.
“What I like about it is we’re helping kids make a decision to commit to education,” says CGGI Executive Program Director Bruce Davidson. “Education is the key. Going to university to play a sport gets you in the door, and if you can manage an athletic timetable as well as studies, it teaches you so much about time management, discipline, and all that goes along with that.”
Cummins flew from Belfast to Heathrow – where she met up with other campers and two Congaree ambassadors – and then flew the rest of the way to South Carolina.
She reports an almost mystical quality about being driven through the gates – like rolling up Augusta National’s Magnolia Lane. (Not bad for a first visit to America.) She showed up with a set of hand-me-down men’s clubs with extra-stiff shafts and was promptly fitted for a new set of PINGs – a fantasy-camp-like experience that is very real at CGGI.
Kayleigh Franklin of the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) gives each camper an assessment and personalized exercises. Davidson, who worked under Dick Harmon at Houston’s River Oaks Country Club, and John McNeely, who learned from Claude Harmon at Winged Foot, handle instruction along with fellow world-class teachers Katherine Doyle and Jason Baile.
Matt Cuccaro, Director of Performance at The Sea Pines Resort, offers guidance on the mental aspect. Kids work on test-taking and college-admissions essays, and consult with Lorne Kelly, a Walker Cup player for Great Britain & Ireland who ran a business that helped place European kids in American universities. “He has like 2,200 college coaches on speed dial,” Davidson says.
“It made me decide that going to America to play golf was something I’d like to do, if it was possible,” Cummins says. “We went through SATs and stuff, what it takes to get into college in America, which was good because our exams back home aren’t multiple choice. Lorne told me that a DII size school might be the best fit and put us in touch. From the first call I knew.”
Ford, who led Atlanta’s Drew Charter to its historic state title in 2019 and now plays for North Carolina A&T, a historically Black college and university, describes the week as unlike any golf camp he’d ever seen. His full fitting, driver to wedges, was a first for him, and the course and accommodations were spectacular. The atmosphere gave him a taste of what playing college golf would be like.
“They didn’t treat us like kids,” he says. “They treated us like we were already student-athletes. They gave us that responsibility. Workouts and yoga every morning. They expected us to be on time, be punctual, give it our all when we practiced or played.”
Some but not all of the Congaree kids come from the First Tee. That goes for Ford, who played with partner Billy Andrade in the 2019 PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach.
Kharynton Beggs, who is an alumnus of First Tee chapters in Baltimore, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina, once considered quitting golf after losing her father in a tragic motorcycle accident in 2016. Kharynton, who had just gotten home from a First Tee leadership academy in Minnesota when she got the news, was shattered.
“I was doing really well before the accident,” she says. “I was so excited to be at that leadership academy and had just finished freshman year of high school. After the accident I went into a state of denial and kept doing everything I was doing before, never really giving myself time to process and grieve.
“In hindsight it wasn’t the best idea. And when school started, I began to think, Wow, I don’t know if I’m OK.”
She didn’t play high school golf that year. “I thought, maybe this is a good time to take some time off,” she says. “Then I really removed myself from the game as my dad was one of the first people I would talk to after every round or lesson.”
Bucky Dudley, her coach at the First Tee of Charleston, kept checking in on her.
“He kept calling to ask, ‘Hey, am I going to see you later today at the course?’” she says. “And I would say no, and he would keep calling. He didn’t make me feel weird for missing it, but he also didn’t give up. That’s what got me back into it. Eventually one day I just said, ‘OK, I’ll see you at the course.’”
Beggs played No. 1 for all-girls Ashley Hall in Charleston but suffered another setback when she hurt her back hitting a shot during a tournament her junior year. College coaches stopped writing, and she began to wonder if her dream of playing collegiate golf was still attainable. That’s when she was nominated to go to Congaree, which was when things began to turn around.
She got stronger, worked on her game, and wrote a five-year plan. She recently happened upon it, marveling at how many of her intentions had become a reality. Soon after leaving Congaree, she played in the 2018 PURE Insurance at Pebble Beach with partner Jay Haas – a fellow Palmetto State resident. Teia, who’d gotten Kharynton into golf, was by her side the whole time and formed a friendship with Haas’ wife, Jan.
Kharynton Beggs with Jay Haas at the 2018 PURE Insurance Championship. (Submitted)
Today, Kharynton plays for Division III Oglethorpe University, where she will be a junior in the fall. Without the helping hand of CGGI, she says, it’s unclear where she would have ended up.
“Going to Congaree helped,” she says. “Receiving that one-of-a-kind instruction made me realize how much I loved the sport, and I knew how much I wanted to play college golf and make that a reality.”
Davidson says there are plans to take CGGI on the road, although thus far that’s only happened virtually, owing to the pandemic. The U.K. version of CGGI was limited to distance-learning last summer and will be again this year. Still, it accomplished its goal of connecting kids to colleges.
“We’ve had discussions with a golf course in Brazil,” Davidson says. “We’re looking at the Middle East. We want to have as many Congaree kids as we can get into college.”
And after that?
“The cool thing about Congaree,” he adds, “is our ambassadors are standing by and ready to help them get employment after graduation. If they play the PGA TOUR or LPGA, that’s terrific, but we all know that less than one percent of NCAA graduates go on to play any professional tour.”
Cummins, whose father works in the window manufacturing industry and mother works part time resolving disputes in the workplace, never had much money to travel throughout Europe for tournaments. But by getting involved with CGGI, and now being a member of the Carson-Newman Eagles women’s team, she has put those issues behind her.
She plans to graduate a semester early this December with a major in sports management and a minor in accounting, and then begin work on her MBA. She is doing an internship at The Preserve Resort in Tennessee this summer to get a taste of normal life in the States.
It was arranged, as so many things have been, through Congaree.
“It’s one of those things in life, I don’t know where I would be in life if I didn’t get that letter in the mail,” she says. “I’ve made so many good friends in America; I’m definitely very grateful.”