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Palmetto Championship at Congaree Completes "South Carolina Swing"

Bob Gillespie Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.
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With more than 350 golf courses across the state, South Carolina has long been regarded as a premier golf destination known for its outstanding array of courses. While most come to play on vacation, the state has also hosted some of the world’s top professional players annually, starting in 1969 with the debut of the PGA TOUR’s RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island.

But when the Palmetto Championship at Congaree takes place June 10-13, it will conclude the greatest stretch of professional golf in South Carolina history.

By then, the sports world’s attention will have been focused for three months on the Heritage (April 15-18), the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island Resort’s Ocean Course (May 20-23), and finally on the Palmetto Championship at the exclusive Congaree Golf Club near Ridgeland.

“It’s a great story for South Carolina, for its tourism and economic development,” PGA TOUR Executive Vice President Ty Votaw said during the Palmetto Championship media day at Congaree. “The world will see South Carolina four times (including June’s BMW Charity Pro-Am in Greenville, part of the TOUR’s developmental Korn Ferry Tour) over that time frame.”

CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz, who anchors the network’s coverage of the Masters and Heritage each spring, recently dubbed the stretch “the South Carolina Swing.” A week ahead of the U.S. Open in San Diego, Congaree will test a strong field of 156 players, including South Carolina native and world No. 1 player Dustin Johnson.

As much an attraction for viewers as the Palmetto Championship’s contestants, though, might be the golf course itself. Opened in January 2018, Congaree has won a haul of awards, notably Golf Digest’s Best New Private Course of 2018. But with just two members—billionaire founders Dan Friedkin and the late Robert McNair, who owned the NFL’s Houston Texans—and 200 “ambassadors” who donate to fund Congaree’s charitable initiatives, the course has been largely unseen and cloaked in mystique.

The Tom Fazio design, which can play up to 7,800 yards at par-72, is unlike anything many TOUR players have seen, said Greenville native Lucas Glover, 2009 U.S. Open champion and one of Congaree’s ambassadors. With wide-open spaces, vast expanses of sand and tightly-mowed fairways and green surrounds, plus undulating, lightning-quick putting surfaces, Glover compares the 3,000-acre layout to Australia’s Sandbelt courses, noted for their fast-running fairways and hard, shot-resistant greens. (Aussie Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters winner, is also an ambassador).

“If it remains fast and firm (meaning little or no rain), you’ll see different styles of play,” Glover said. “You’ll see the bombers hitting over the trouble, shorter hitters running it between the problems.

“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday (practice rounds) will be really cool, seeing how guys go about it, (thinking) ‘How do I get it in this area to make birdie?’”

The week of the Heritage, Glover said, “I played 54 holes here in two days, and every 18 holes, I hit every club in my bag. You can’t say that about a lot of courses.”

Golf Channel will air the tournament Thursday and Friday and CBS on Saturday and Sunday. On-site spectators will be limited to 7,500, which should help mitigate access issues at the rural Jasper County site, and parking will be ample.

The Heritage has been around for more than 50 years, and this year’s PGA Championship is returning to the site of its 2012 contest won by Rory McIlroy. But the Palmetto Championship’s “history” will encompass less than three months, starting March 30, from conception to reality. Call it South Carolina golf’s 2021 “bonus baby.”

When the 2021 RBC Canadian Open was canceled due to Covid-19 restrictions in Canada, the PGA TOUR went looking for a replacement location. Congaree had previously made known its desire for an event, Votaw said. The club sought to host the 2025 Presidents Cup, which ultimately went to San Francisco’s Harding Park.

The day the Canadian Open officially went dark, Votaw was on Hilton Head Island for the Heritage, where he huddled with South Carolina Parks, Recreation & Tourism Director Duane Parrish, Gov. Henry McMaster, Congaree co-general manager Bruce Davidson and others to come up with the state’s offer for the tournament.

“I told the governor this was an opportunity for the state like it might never have again,” Parrish said. “What a great time to take advantage of this, when golf is on the rise and people have cabin fever like never before.”

For Votaw’s part, he wanted a replacement with quality and “we knew (Congaree) was a special place,” he said. “With the club’s commitment to excellence every step of the way, its leadership, it was natural for us to want to get the best players in the world to come here and play.”

The state will receive 32 advertising spots—16 on Golf Channel Thursday and Friday and 16 on CBS for the weekend telecasts—plus countless mentions and “beauty shots” of the course and surrounding Lowcountry during tournament week.

Getting the tournament was a win for the club as well, enabling Congaree to tell its philanthropic story to the outside world. The program consists of both local and international initiatives. In Ridgeland, the Congaree Foundation purchased and upgraded the historic 9-hole Sergeant Jasper Golf Club, recently adding a much-needed irrigation system. The Foundation also built a driving range at Ridgeland-Hardeeville High School, which offers a turf management program for students.

The foundation’s signature program is the Congaree Global Golf Initiative (CGGI), targeting “underserved and ambitious” high school students hoping to play collegiate golf. Each summer, students attend a week-long “immersive boot camp,” where they are fitted with clubs and work with golf instructors, guidance counselors and educators to prepare themselves for college, both athletically and academically, as well as for the admissions process.

Since its first class in 2017, the CGGI has seen 85 percent of its graduates go on to attend college. The program has had 68 graduates, and of those who finished high school, 27 earned college golf scholarships.

“By the end of that week, they understand they can go to college,” Davidson said of the students, who are often the first in their families to do so. “Mr. Friedkin’s vision is that this will be the No. 1 junior golf program.”

Added Congaree co-general manager John McNeely, “For Bruce and me, this is the most important thing we’ve ever been involved in.” The Foundation “has created a vision, and it’s become extremely successful.”

Starting June 10, that vision will be seen around the world—along with the final leg of the South Carolina Swing.

Bob Gillespie
Bob is a former sports writer at Columbia’s The State newspaper. He enjoys golf at South Carolina’s 350-plus courses, and after a round, sampling craft beers from the Palmetto State’s breweries.