THE LONG GAME

An ex­clu­sive first look at Con­ga­ree, a new South Carolina golf club built by bil­lion­aires on a model of phi­lan­thropy.

Forbes - - CONTENTS - by ERIK ma­tuszewski

An ex­clu­sive look at Con­ga­ree, a new South Carolina golf club built by bil­lion­aires on a model of phi­lan­thropy.

Jasper County, South Carolina, is only a 45-minute drive from the low-coun­try re­sort town of Hil­ton Head, but it’s a world re­moved. Ag­ing churches and fam­ily home­steads whose bet­ter days have long passed are in­ter­spersed with di­lap­i­dated trailer homes and over­grown yards strewn with junk and bro­k­endown cars. It’s not where one would ex­pect to find the most ex­clu­sive and in­spi­ra­tional new golf club in Amer­ica, one where phi­lan­thropy drives a vi­sion­ary mem­ber­ship model.

Con­ga­ree, which qui­etly opened this spring, was founded on a for­mer 18th-cen­tury rice plan­ta­tion by 2 of the 200 rich­est men in Amer­ica— Texas bil­lion­aires Dan Fried­kin and Robert McNair—and named af­ter a Na­tive Amer­i­can tribe that once called the area home. The club’s call­ing is to use golf to bring to­gether an in­ter­na­tional net­work of in­flu­en­tial peo­ple pas­sion­ate about chang­ing lives, both lo­cally and glob­ally.

“We wanted to cre­ate a club that at the core of its mis­sion makes mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ences in the lives of young peo­ple and at­tracts golfers who not only want to play a won­der­ful golf course but who also want to be ac­tively in­volved in our phil­an­thropic goals,” says the 52-year-old Fried­kin, who car­ries a tidy 6.9 hand­i­cap and is chair­man of the Fried­kin Group, a pri­vately held con­sor­tium of busi­nesses in the au­to­mo­tive, lux­ury hos­pi­tal­ity, golf and en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­tries.

De­spite Con­ga­ree’s for­ward-think­ing mis­sion, its mem­ber­ship process is old-fash­ioned: by in­vi­ta­tion and re­fer­ral only. There are tech­ni­cally only two mem­bers of the club: Fried­kin and Mcnair, owner of the NFL’S Hous­ton Tex­ans. Ev­ery­one else af­fil­i­ated with Con­ga­ree—from an NFL Hall of Famer to a Grammy Award-win­ning coun­try singer—is in­vited to be­come an “am­bas­sador” on an an­nual ba­sis. All share a love for golf and a pas­sion for help­ing oth­ers.

Am­bas­sadors are en­cour­aged to make a sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial con­tri­bu­tion to the char­i­ta­ble Con­ga­ree Foun­da­tion and also take an ac­tive role in in­ter­act­ing with youth at the club and shar­ing life ex­pe­ri­ences—good and bad. Con­ga­ree’s aim is to of­fer ed­u­ca­tional, vo­ca­tional and golf in­struc­tion to un­der­priv­i­leged youth, whether that’s by help­ing area schools or through its Global Golf Ini­tia­tive, which brings in high-school-age kids from around the world who as­pire to play golf in col­lege but don’t have the sup­port, fi­nan­cial or oth­er­wise.

The per­son who would pre­fer to cut a check for sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars? That’s not what Con­ga­ree is about. If you’re hop­ing to join the club for your­self alone, you’re prob­a­bly not the right fit.

“It is very sat­is­fy­ing to hear our am­bas­sadors ex­press how proud they are to be a part of some­thing like this that tran­scends a mere golf ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Fried­kin, a trustee of the Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety and chair­man of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Com­mis­sion. “They aren’t just look­ing to make a con­tri­bu­tion to the Con­ga­ree Foun­da­tion and en­joy great golf. They’re com­mit­ted to help­ing the Con­ga­ree kids in any way they can.”

Con­ga­ree’s Global Golf Ini­tia­tive started this June with teenagers from the United States and over­seas. To iden­tify prospec­tive par­tic­i­pants, the club turned to PGA pros around the world and in­vited them to be club am­bas­sadors, with World Golf Hall of Famer Mark O’meara, a two-time ma­jor cham­pion, and other tour­ing pros among them.

As for the club it­self: The course at Con­ga­ree was built by the renowned ar­chi­tect Tom Fazio, who has 24 lay­outs ranked among Golfweek’s 100 best mod­ern cour­ses in the United States. De­signed in the spirit of the Heath­land cour­ses found in Bri­tain and the sand­belt cour­ses of Aus­tralia, Con­ga­ree has a nat­u­ral look, lends it­self to the ground game and plays firm and fast, un­like many of the overly lush de­signs fa­vored through­out the coun­try to­day.

Fried­kin’s edict to Bruce David­son and John Mc­neely, the codi­rec­tors of golf at Con­ga­ree, was to find a ter­rific piece of land ac­ces­si­ble from the Eastern seaboard. Af­ter scout­ing a num­ber of pos­si­ble lo­ca­tions, they se­lected the in­land prop­erty in Jasper County, with its sandy soil, per­fect for a golf course, and its peace­ful hunt­ing grounds and his­toric feel. The lay and look of the land evokes the feel of some of the coun­try’s best cour­ses, par­tic­u­larly Pine Val­ley in New Jersey and Pine­hurst in North Carolina. When Fazio first vis­ited the 3,200acre prop­erty, dot­ted with lon­gleaf pine, na­tive wet­lands and bot­tom­land hard­wood forests, he was blown away. “You guys hit the mother lode here,” he said.

“We couldn’t be more ex­cited about the golf course Tom Fazio de­signed. How­ever, we also rec­og­nize it is a process that is never fin­ished, and it re­quires con­stant im­prove­ment,” says Fried­kin, who also owns the pris­tine Di­a­mond Creek Golf Club in the moun­tains of North Carolina. “The open­ing has been a tremen­dous ac­com­plish­ment, but it is a dy­namic thing, and that is part of the fun of it.”

There are no cart paths on the course, as Con­ga­ree is a walk­ing prop­erty. It’s a theme that ex­tends be­yond the fair­ways, with am­bas­sadors and guests en­cour­aged to walk the grounds, per­haps in step with the ghosts also said to call the his­toric land home. The club’s main house sits at the end of a mile-long gravel drive­way that goes through a gaunt­let of an­cient live oaks with Span­ish moss wav­ing gen­tly in gnarled branches.

The house was re­built af­ter the orig­i­nal burned down dur­ing Union Gen­eral Wil­liam T. Sher­man’s Civil War march across the South. There’s also an inn and a newly con­structed white­washed lodge that has a restau­rant, a bar and an invit­ing cov­ered back porch that looks out on the re­mark­able new golf course be­hind it. Other his­toric build­ings have been pre­served and up­dated, from cozy guest cot­tages to a two-room school­house com­plete with a work­ing bell in the steeple.

And ev­ery time a “Con­ga­ree kid” is at the school, the am­bas­sadors on the prop­erty will know. That bell will ring.

Se­ri­ous green: In ad­di­tion to a golf club, Con­ga­ree fea­tures 26 guest rooms and a school­house for the chil­dren its char­ity ben­e­fits.

Play­ing through: tom fazio (with co­founder Dan fried­kin, right) de­signed the course among 300-year-old oak trees with no cart paths and no tee mark­ers.

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