PGA schedule this week: Tour heads to SC Congaree course

The dateline is “Ridgeland,” the nearest post office, but perhaps “Gillionville,” the closest community in the northern portion of Jasper County, would be more appropriate to pinpoint this rural address.

A larger question: How did a PGA Tour golf tournament dubbed the Palmetto Championship at Congaree spring up almost overnight in this sleepy section of South Carolina’s Lowcountry?

Long story short: The Tour needed a replacement for the RBC Canadian Open and state of South Carolina officials joined with Congaree Golf Club representatives to seize the opportunity.

The golf hierarchy announced March 9 that logistical challenges related to the coronavirus outbreak had knocked the Canadian Open off the PGA Tour calendar for the second straight year.

But Duane Parrish, who heads South Carolina’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, had already ignited the state’s interest. “I had gotten wind of it beforehand and done some homework,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Tour staff knew the possibility of a Canadian cancellation and considered options.

“But nothing could be done (by the Tour) until a definitive decision” was made on the Canadian Open, said Ty Votaw, the Tour’s executive vice president. “Travel restrictions could be lifted in time for the tournament, but they didn’t know.”

Once the Canadian Open became another event wiped out by the pandemic, the wheels of progress turned quickly. Within three weeks, one of golf’s worst-kept secrets became fact, and Tour officials notified players in late March a replacement tournament would fill the June 10-13 slot.

A few days later, Gov. Henry McMaster announced the state would invest $6 million in existing sports marketing funds to go with the support of Congaree owner Dan Friedkin to capitalize on what perhaps is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

About the Congaree Golf Club

The Palmetto Championship at Congaree turns the eyes of the golf world on South Carolina for the third straight month. The tourney follows the annual RBC Heritage on Hilton Head Island each April and the once-every-decade PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in May to create what CBS announcer Jim Nantz called “the South Carolina swing.”

“The stars aligned,” Parrish said, and officials are excited at the economic impact not only for the state’s robust golf market but overall tourism.

“This allows us on a national basis to compete with much bigger states, like Florida,” Parrish said. “What better time than now with people wanting to get out. This will put us at the forefront.”

Golf generated a $2.6 billion economic impact for the state in 2019, Parrish said, and he estimated the Palmetto Championship’s impact will be in the range of $50 million.

“For media exposure, we will have 16 (advertising spots) on the Golf Channel on Thursday and Friday and 16 on CBS on Saturday and Sunday,” Parrish said. “The media exposure includes the social media prior to the tournament. … Every time they say ‘South Carolina’ is an advertising spot. We’re not talking about just one area; we’re talking about the entire state.

“Golfers can’t just walk up and play Congaree; it’s a private club. But the media coverage will illustrate just how much South Carolina has to offer in golf and in tourism. What we get out of the Heritage every year would cost a lot more than $6 million. You just can’t buy that kind of coverage, and we’re targeting a golf audience.”

The state benefits and Congaree Golf Club’s “charitable mission fits with (the Tour’s),” Votaw said. “The story of Congaree is something we want the world to know.”

Friedkin and the late Bob McNair, a University of South Carolina graduate who owned the National Football League’s Houston Texans, started the club for a base for their Congaree Global Golf Initiative and are Congaree’s only members. The program identifies high school students from around the world who have the talent but lack financial advantages.

They come to Congaree for an intense program that includes educational and golf instruction. “Ambassadors” are invited to join, primarily for mentorship opportunities.

“Mr. Friedkin’s vision was for Congaree to bring together like-minded individuals who played golf, loved golf and realized a philanthropic club was a conduit to be able to make a difference in the lives of children,” said Bruce Davidson, a PGA professional and Congaree’s director of golf. “The Foundation is the heartbeat of the club.”

Congaree has been on PGA radar

Officials did more than just pull a rabbit out of a hat to bring a PGA Tour tournament to a rural South Carolina. For one thing, the golf course is ranked among the best in the United States. For another, Congaree has been on the Tour’s radar almost from its inception in 2017.

“We’ve been in dialogue with Congaree ever since we were first aware. … We’ve had a number of conversations, but this is the first one that worked,” said Votaw, who first came to Congaree two years ago and went away impressed. “They’re usually closed in June, but the fact they were willing to keep it open an additional couple of weeks speaks to how great they have been to work with. They wanted this … they didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity.”

In fact, Friedkin and McNair hired famed architect Tom Fazio to design a golf course worthy of a major championship and lobbied with the PGA Tour to secure the 2025 Presidents Cup. That did not materialize, but, Votaw said, “We wanted to find a way to work together with Congaree, and this fortunately is that opportunity.”

That opportunity developed quickly.

“Our first meeting with them was (in early March),” Parrish said. “Myself, Ty Votaw of the PGA Tour, Bruce Davidson and Bob Ferguson representing Congaree, the governor and the governor’s chief of staff were there.

“We heard what they wanted to do. I had gotten wind of it beforehand and done some homework on what the benefits would be for us and what I thought it was worth. They came in and made and offer and I told the governor I thought it was great offer and an opportunity the state would never have again.”

The governor agreed, and the third leg of “the South Carolina swing” soon became a reality.

Golf organizers pull off quick planning

Putting together the pieces for a PGA Tour tournament generally requires up to a year, but only three months will have elapsed between The Canadian Open’s cancellation and the first tee shot Thursday in the Palmetto Championship at Congaree.

“I didn’t think (the tournament) could happen so quickly,” Parrish admitted. “But the PGA Tour assured us they could put it together. They had to do tournaments on the fly last year during COVID and one from Mexico this year. They assured us they could pull this off.”

Said Votaw: “Maybe sometimes things are easier because you don’t have to think about them. We have a great team that going to run the event along with the people at Congaree, so it’s going to be a special week.”

The decision came quickly, but did it come easily?

“A lot of ingredients go into a tournament site — space, time, location,” Votaw said. “We had to bring other international events to the United States last year, so we had other options. But weather-wise here … we always had Congaree in our mind because it’s a special place to come.”

The location — about 40 miles north of Hilton Head and a couple of miles off Interstate 95 on a two-lane road — does not bother the PGA Tour.

“The support of State of South Carolina, Jasper County, leadership and ownership of Congaree, all those things together, they have taken ownership,” Votaw said. “… It may be rural, but it’s not remote. Look at other places. Kohler, Wisconsin is 55 miles from Milwaukee and the Ryder Cup is there this year. Kiawah was relatively remote for 1991 Ryder Cup.

“Our players know what they’re getting when they come to South Carolina from their Hilton Head experiences. This will be a great addition to South Carolina’s golf legacy.”

Parrish echoed that assessment and said, “Everybody wins.”

TV coverage for Palmetto Championship at Congaree

Thursday-Friday: 3-6 p.m., Golf Channel

Saturday-Sunday, 1-3 p.m., Golf Channel and 3-6 p.m., CBS

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