On the outskirts of Ridgeland, South Carolina, stands a tiny white schoolhouse with a bell perched on top. It’s a quaint and charming Southern masterpiece that serves as a beacon for the most driven junior golfers in the world.
Congaree Golf Club opened in 2017 and burst onto the world golf stage last summer by hosting the PGA Tour’s one-off Palmetto Championship, but the club’s true mission goes far beyond building a world-class golf course worthy of hosting prestigious championships. It’s about giving back to the community through charitable donations and helping talented students from South Carolina and beyond achieve their goals — on and off the links.
Each year, dozens of high-achieving and under-resourced high school golfers are invited to Congaree to work with renowned instructors. At the end of a memorable week of teaching, college admissions prep, and competition, these students leave prepared with all the tools to succeed on the road ahead and earn a quality college education. In just under five years, the Congaree Global Golf Initiative has sent juniors to top NCAA programs including the College of Charleston, Texas, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, and Xavier.
A budding star on the Canadian junior golf circuit, Krystal Li was in search of the coaching needed to take that next step in her game and earn a scholarship to play in college. One of her coaches had the contact of a Congaree ambassador, and Li quickly seized her chance.
“It’s been amazing so far,” Li said. “It offers so many great opportunities for juniors like me because we can learn so much about the college application process and how to improve our golf game. I think that this is really going to help me with my future and finding a good school.”
The application process is thorough and competitive. Candidates are nominated by a Congaree ambassador, a member of the International Golf Federation, or any First Tee chapter across the United States based upon results, academic records, and overall character. This year, two dozen juniors from across the country were invited to Congaree, and for the first time ever, 12 additional students from seven different countries will enjoy the same experience in July at Scotland’s Archerfield Links.
In a series of one-week programs, these juniors will enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime experience to train and hone their skills at a world-class golf complex nestled in the beautiful South Carolina Lowcountry. It was a departure from Li’s time up north, but the Ontario native felt right at home.
“When I first came here I saw the course and I just felt, wow, this is amazing,” she recalled. “The facilities are great and I’m really grateful to be here.”
Students stay in cottages right next to the course throughout the week and have access to all of Congaree’s state-of-the-art training facilities. The program includes daily instruction and on-course practice at one of the most challenging places to play in the nation. The week culminates in the Congaree Cup, a tournament testing every bit of the campers’ skills in a competitive setting. And with over 2,000 college coaches on speed dial, an impressive performance could mean a golden ticket to a future scholarship offer.
It’s a challenge that South Carolina’s own DJ Belcher was ready to take on. A former football player from Greer, Belcher got hooked on golf after his youth-league quarterback took him out to the course. Now, he’s earned a shot to set himself up for a rewarding collegiate career.
“It’s felt like a dream come true to work with the best of the best out here,” Belcher said. “I’ve been able to improve on my swing pattern and my chipping. I’m so thankful for this opportunity and being able to live this experience.”
Li and Belcher enjoyed an unforgettable week filled with individualized instruction from top teaching professionals with the chance to play at a course that just hosted a PGA Tour event in 2021 and appears destined to bring in even bigger events in the future.
But the essence of the program takes place inside the four walls of that majestic little white schoolhouse.
It’s a necessity to have strong academic results to earn a college scholarship, and the Congaree Global Golf Initiative makes that crucial step a priority. All juniors receive extensive preparation and guidance in the college application process and standardized testing that is critical to earning that coveted collegiate scholarship. The seminars are invaluable to all of these young men and women, especially Li, who was yet to be exposed to the process.
That guidance doesn’t stop once those students leave Congaree’s pristine grounds. The program continues to stay in touch with alumni over the next two years as they navigate those critical decisions ahead. The continued mentorship and support throughout the entire process is what sets the Congaree Global Golf Initiative apart from similar programs. Since its inception back in 2017, more than 95 percent of alumni went on to pursue a college degree, regardless of whether they played golf at the collegiate level.
Even if golf doesn’t work out for some, the CGGI advisors will find scholarship opportunities for these students to pursue their dream endeavors.
Bruce Davidson, Director of Golf at Congaree, has devoted his career to growing the sport across the country. There’s been nothing more rewarding in his illustrious career than managing this renowned program and giving hard-working kids their well-deserved shot.
And seeing it all happen within the beauty of the South Carolina Lowcountry makes it extra special.
“Seeing the reaction of the kids is just fantastic,” Davidson said. “Maybe it’s a little tweak in their swing or it could be the clubs that PING gives them. They come in not knowing and they leave more comfortable. They’re part of a network of 160 kids across the world. And they’re Congaree kids for life.”
By Wes Kerr / Photos courtesy Congaree Foundation