RIDGELAND, S.C. — The dark clouds that had loitered ominously in the sky over Congaree Golf Club were about to burst with unwelcome torrents of rain.
Most spectators at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree on Saturday had already retreated to their cars and a dry return to their homes or hotel rooms. A man on a shuttle bus racing the raindrops made his way to one of the parking lots.
“Who’d have thought we’d have this out here,” the man said to fellow riders, “out in the middle of nowhere?”
He was referring not to the summer storms routine for June, but to a PGA Tour event out here in rural Jasper County, South Carolina. Until its announcement March 30 — of this year — the golf tournament didn’t exist and at that date didn’t have a publicized name.
Digging out of a hole:UGA star Davis Thompson rallies to play the weekend in his pro debut
While Congaree Golf Club has existed since opening in the fall of 2017, the private club was perhaps as mysterious as its location north of Ridgeland and near the town of Gillisonville.
“I didn’t even know about this course until several months ago,” said Bill Dusch, 68, a resident of Hilton Head Island when he’s not in Concord, N.C., where he is the mayor.
Dusch volunteered to work the tournament this week because “I wanted to have an opportunity to walk it, to work it and walk it.”
He was not alone in that sentiment. His friend and neighbor on Hilton Head, Tom Wolfe, also joined the army of volunteers for an opportunity to get inside the gate. They also like to help, as Wolfe (10 straight years) and Dusch (eight) have volunteered at the PGA Tour’s annual event in South Carolina, the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links.
“In this case, I wanted to see the golf course,” Wolfe, 73, said Saturday from his post at No. 18. “I figured it was my only chance to see this place. Yesterday, after I finished my shift, I walked the course to see the rest of it. … It’s beautiful.”
Congaree’s unique beauty and design — 18 holes winding through natural grasses, trees, water and lots and lots of sand with little rough — make for a sensory treat and a sporting challenge to golfers of any level. Congaree has been lauded by national golf media on annual lists of the best new, private and overall golf courses in the country.
But Congaree had never before hosted a tournament, and most of the PGA Tour players had never seen it, knowing it only by reputation. Of the two dozen or so who have played it, most of those could count on one, maybe two hands, the number of rounds.
Jump at the chance
It was going to take an unforeseen event to allow Congaree to get a date on the PGA Tour calendar for this one time. That event was the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled the RBC Canadian Open because of logistical restrictions and created an opening for June 10-13.
“Congaree has always had an interest in hosting an event here, so they had reached out to the PGA Tour along with the state of South Carolina, really wanting to bring another tournament to South Carolina,” Meghan Costello, Director of Tournament Services for the PGA Tour, said Saturday. “It kind of all aligned, and here we are 64 days later.”
Costello, tournament director for the Palmetto Championship at Congaree, said a new event usually has a full year to prepare. By her count, when the project came to her desk at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, “I think it was about 64 or somewhere around that” to Monday of tournament week.
Time was unusually compressed, especially for a site that had never hosted a tournament, so no plug-and-play convenience. Bruce Davidson, Director of Golf for The Friedkin Group, whose CEO Dan Friedkin co-founded the club, calls it “a pop-up event.”
“We had less than 80 days when we signed the contract, 80 days to do a full-field tour event,” he said in an interview in the weeks leading up to the tournament. “With the help of our own team and the PGA Tour team, it’s going to be a fabulous event. We’ve got a wonderful, full field, 156 (players). I think these guys are going to love the golf course and I think it’ll show on television.”
The TV program, with apologies to the late French novelist Jules Verne, could be titled, “A Round of Golf (or four) in 80 Days.”
Costello and her team made their first site visit in April during Masters week. The course, she said, is awesome, and the practice areas and facilities are great.
“We went through the course and checked out everything,” she said. “This one is a bit interesting because usually we go to courses that are so tight and there’s only so many places where you can build things. Here, they have so much land. It actually made it a bit more of a challenge because you weren’t limited on where you were putting everything.”
Too many options might be a good problem to have. They built the infrastructure and made the necessary arrangements with Jasper County government entities like emergency services, police and fire.
Parking lots were not a problem, with help from the neighboring sod farm owned by the family of golfer Bryson Nimmer, ably playing the role of hometown hero this week in the tournament.
Sponsors came on board including South Carolina, the Palmetto State, which is hosting its third PGA Tour event this year and second pro golf tournament this week with a Korn Ferry Tour event in Greer. The state, which announced the use of $6 million from existing sports marketing funds as title sponsor, estimates the one-time Palmetto Championship will have a $50 million impact on South Carolina’s economy.
Columbia native Dustin Johnson, the top-ranked player in the world, committed to play in his home state. Other big names, such as Brooks Koepka, joined the field.
Costello said the tournament was able to have everything it needed built in time for the players, spectators and television coverage. There was still an issue.
“I think our biggest challenge was when we got here we were trying to figure out how we were going to get 750 volunteers because we’re obviously a little remote out here,” Costello said. “We were nervous about where they all were going to come from. But the team over at RBC Heritage really helped us out. They brought a lot of their volunteers and we actually were able to get to 760, so we were pretty excited about it.”
Hotel and motels
Volunteers like Wolfe and Dusch came from Hilton Head, and that area as well as Beaufort and Bluffton also were a resource for hotel rooms needed to house the fans, tournament staff, television crews and many of the players gathered in the Lowcountry. Jasper County does not have the built-in hospitality industry of Beaufort County.
If the PGA Tour or another major golf organization brings an event to Congaree, accommodations in and around the club will be a talking point.
Costello said the PGA Tour is talking to players about Congaree and looking at how well the tournament week flowed.
“We’ve only had great comments about being out here,” she said Saturday. “I know the players have loved the facilities and the course. I really haven’t heard anything negative on my end.”
Well, there’s no controlling the weather, for starters. The heat and the rain made for steamy conditions, a tradeoff for when the cloud cover cooled temperatures. Again, routine for June, which was the available date for the tournament.
While surveying fans this week, reporter Shellie Murdaugh of Bluffton Today and the Jasper County Sun Times heard positive reviews about the course, the overall experience and getting up-close views of the golf. Some suggested more available maps and pairing sheets and for lowering prices at concession stands.
Congaree Golf Club views this week as an audition of sorts in front of a number of golf tours and associations. Davidson said before the tournament that Congaree had bid for the 2026 Presidents Cup and finished second behind Medinah (Illinois) Country Club, a veteran site for significant golf tournaments in the Chicago area.
“That was pretty good for a fledgling course,” Davidson said of Congaree. “I think the PGA Tour and our side both realize this is in many ways a proof of concept. I think we’ll just let the golf course speak for itself. They don’t put big competitions on bad golf courses.
“I feel comfortable after this event, whether we contact them or they contact us, you’ll see something else here in the future.”
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at [email protected] Twitter: @NathanDominitz