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Congaree Golf Club: The CJ Cup is played at the coolest private club no one can join

Already listed as one of the Top 40 courses in America, Congaree is more about their mission to serve than just playing the game.

Harris English plays a shot from a bunker on the 18th hole during the final round of the Palmetto Championship at Congaree on June 13, 2021 in Ridgeland, South Carolina. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The constantly-traveling CJ Cup has found a new location in Gillisonville, South Carolina, a census-designated place with a population of 183. It’s about an hour’s drive to Hilton Head and an hour and a half to Charleston from the Congaree Golf Club, which was designed by famed architect Tom Fazio and opened in 2018.

Congaree was rated the best new private course in Golf Digest the year it opened, but there’s an interesting catch — there have only been two official members of the club since 2018.

A different approach to golf

Billionaires Cal McNair and Dan Friedkin opened the course as a philanthropic outreach venture (yes, that Cal McNair, the since-deceased owner of the Houston Texans). Rather than having members, the club has over 200 ambassadors who promote, volunteer, and fundraise for Congaree’s initiatives.

The club revolves primarily around the Congaree Global Golf Initiative, which combines golf instruction and college prep curriculum to help high schoolers interested in the sport pursue postsecondary education. Per their website, the Initiative “provides underserved and well-deserving high school students who aspire to play collegiate golf access to the highest level of athletic coaching and academic tools to enhance their opportunities for success.”

Since its formation in 2017, the Initiative claims 138 graduates from around the world, 95% of whom went to college. Along with golf training, students receive ACT and SAT prep as well as college admissions guidance.

Community involvement

Congaree was built in one of the poorest areas of the state. Jasper County, part of the South Carolina Lowcountry, has seen a decrease in poverty levels in the past decade. Over a quarter of the county’s population was living below the poverty line in 2011, but the percentage was down to 18.4% in the 2020 census (the national poverty rate is 11.6%).

The Global Golf Initiative isn’t the only outreach the club participates in — local economic development was a major reason that the location was chosen. The club has partnered with the Boys & Girls Club of Jasper County and the Lowcountry Food Bank, established a career development program for Jasper County youth, and started a program to teach golf to local high school students.

In 2021, a one-off replacement PGA TOUR event was held at Congaree, but if the CJ Cup finds a permanent home in Gillisonville, that could mean even more publicity and development opportunities for its multifaceted community and worldwide outreach efforts.

What does the course look like?

A 7,685-yard, par-71 course, Congaree is a sand-filled, links-like environment. The sand base helps it play fast, but provides plenty of opportunities for tough shots into bunkers and brush-filled sandy areas.

The CJ Cup begins at 8:15 a.m. ET on Thursday and will be available to watch on the Golf Channel beginning at 3:00 p.m. ET. Rory McIlroy enters as the favorite with +650 odds at DraftKings Sportsbook.