How Congaree saved the only public golf course in South Carolina’s poorest county
Congaree, the exclusive private golf club with a philanthropy-based membership model, recently added a second course. Kind of…
Congaree’s firm and fast design quickly won national acclaim when it opened in 2017. The club has garnered even more attention as it hosts the PGA TOUR CJ Cup in the low country of South Carolina, about 40 miles northwest of Hilton Head Island.
Congaree’s mission is to provide educational, professional training and golfing opportunities to disadvantaged and deserving young people through its Congaree Foundation. Club Guest Ambassadors (rather than members) are encouraged not only to make a financial contribution to the Congaree Charitable Foundation, but to take an active role in interacting with and mentoring children who go through the Congaree Global Golf Initiative and winning college scholarships – many of which went on to play golf at the college level.
But another separate effort by the club’s Congaree Foundation is the acquisition and subsequent rehabilitation of Sergeant Jasper Golf Club, a nearby 9-hole course in Jasper County that was about to be turned into living quarters; a trailer park, actually.
The course is the only course open to the public in South Carolina’s poorest county, with nearly a quarter of residents living below the poverty line.
Congaree’s vision for Sergeant Jasper really has nothing to do with his background and his club directly. Instead, it’s an effort to keep golf as an affordable and accessible community amenity — giving locals the chance to play (and learn) on a course that costs $8 to walk nine holes. The 18-hole fee, with cart, is only $25 and juniors can play for free. The Congaree Foundation helps subsidize the cost of golf for the community, much like a municipal golf course.
Sergeant Jasper is charming in his own way, but needs a lot of love after years of deteriorating conditions. And thanks to the Congaree Foundation and a group of PGA TOUR professionals, including Congaree Ambassador Lucas Glover, who helped launch a #RechargeTheSarge campaign, Sergeant Jasper is slowly transforming after being rescued. The club’s director of golf, Tom Craft, also oversees day-to-day operations at “The Sarge,” which is about 20 minutes from Congaree’s 3,200-acre property but can seem a world away.
“When we took it over, you would hardly have known it was a golf course,” says Craft. “They had one employee for everything and he didn’t know anything about weed. But he was in charge of everything, so he was on the mower answering phone calls.
Today much of the fieldwork at Sergeant Jasper is done by a former course superintendent whose career included 20 years at the Johnson City Country Club in Tennessee – a conception of AW Tillinghast. “It’s kind of his retirement, his swan song,” says Craft.
On the route from Congaree to Sergeant Jasper, you will pass the courthouse where the legal work was completed to acquire the public route. The old-school southern vibe is straight out of a John Grisham novel. And while the course itself is a far cry from Congaree’s neat conditions – many tee boxes are bare and uneven, greens are woolly, and overgrown trees encroach on the playing lanes – the Sarge is a fun layout. which, for what it is, is perfect in many ways. There is plenty of sand, mature trees, holes with variety and an undeniable charm if you look at it from a good perspective.
In addition to Sergeant Jasper’s efforts, the Congaree Foundation runs golf programs at the local high school, where the student body is over 95% black and the average household income is less than $20,000. They have set up a shooting range and practice area at the school which can be used during gym class, helping to expose residents more to golf.
When Congaree hosted the Palmetto PGA TOUR Championship in 2021, one of the entrants (tied for 35e) was Bryson Nimmer, a Jasper County native who received a sponsor’s invitation to the tournament. Nimmer grew up playing Sarge and earned one of the top spots on the Clemson golf team before turning professional.
“The greens are really small, so if you can hit the greens, you’re a player,” Craft said of Sergeant Jasper. “He played in better places after that, but he grew up here.”
The larger question with Congaree and Sergeant Jasper is, is this an approach that could be followed elsewhere?
Could other private clubs step in and make a difference when it comes to preserving endangered golf in their local communities?
One of the undeniable lessons of a visit to Congaree is the love that its ambassadors and guests have for the game. Sergeant Jasper’s effort is a recognition not only of the community impact that golf can have, but also of the beauty that can be found in the many forms of the game – from high-end private clubs to $8 public courses.