6,410 yards from the Middle (7,725 from the Back). Slope rating N/A.
Course: In Southeast South Carolina, Congaree Golf Club is in the low country, off a rural road in Jasper County. You could drive by it endlessly without realizing it’s there and this is likely on purpose. It likes to keep a low profile, yet has set out to be a little different from most other golf clubs. It wants to help. Its main focus is on philanthropy; using the passion of golf for the greater good. There are only two members of the club. Everyone else is an “ambassador,” whom do not pay a traditional initiation fee upon entry. Instead, they are encouraged to donate to the charity organization associated with Congaree, the Congaree Foundation. The ambassadors are also encouraged to be active in helping youths, whom could be local or abroad. This is centered on not only developing them into golfers, but sharing life experiences and advice, all of it focused on preparing and assisting these kids for college and beyond. It’s about helping local schools and the community. It’s about creating a philanthropic organization that wants to reach out locally, as well as globally. So while the club is low profile and the entrance is fairly clandestine, this is not because the club wants to keep to itself; indeed, anything but.
In addition to the altruistic founding of the club, there happens to be a golf course that is stunning. Designed by Tom Fazio, it’s unlike any course of his that I have played or seen. While Fazio has characterized it as a, “low country Shadow Creek,” I think the expansive and sweeping nature of the course sets it well apart from Shadow Creek or most low country courses. Firm and fast conditions are also much different than the lushness that typifies a lot of courses in the area, which gives the course a wealth of strategy. Alistair Mackenzie once said the best holes are the ones you can play with a putter. Aside from the forced carries off the tee, that holds true for several of the holes here. Not only does the course invite use of the ground game early and often but there are several angles and lines off the tee and into the greens because of these conditions. The vast bunkers, both rising and below the fairways and greens, add to this emphasis on the terrain by flowing directly into them, similar to how the edges of the bunkers at Royal Melbourne are cut. Water and wetlands are in play on a number of holes as well, making it imperative to have control of the aerial game. Massive oak trees dictate lines and angles to the green as well, yet allow recovery shots from around and under them. During my time there, I marveled at how Fazio incorporated the natural features here so flawlessly.
Alas, Mackenzie also said that the chief object of every golf course architect worth his salt is to imitate the beauties of nature so closely as to make his work indistinguishable from nature itself. Well, Fazio certainly accomplished that here. Dirt was moved, land reshaped; even the oak trees were placed, fully grown, where they are. Keeping with the quote theme, someone in the industry once told me it takes a lot of work to make it look like it’s been there forever. That was certainly the case here. And it was so well done that it certainly had me fooled until I got back home and read how the course was built.
Perhaps that’s the similarity with Shadow Creek; the ability to imitate, “the beauties of nature” so well that it becomes indistinguishable from the real thing. At this point, it’s easy to conflate characterizations of course design. To me, naturalism in terms of a golf course gets complicated, since even the most natural course in the world takes a good deal of manpower to have it become, and remain, a golf course. So the appearance of natural features as the Good Doctor alludes to has always been more significant, and how those natural features are incorporated into the design and play; in short, the interaction of nature during the round. There’s an argument that Fazio improved on the natural features, resulting in a much better course than a more minimalist approach would have yielded. That may have very well been the point. Fazio has been a mainstay in golf course architecture for decades and while minimalists like Doak and Coore/Crenshaw have risen in notoriety and shined the spotlight on the minimalist style in general, Congaree could be seen as an expression; that it’s more about the vision and talents of the designer than it is about the style, era or terrain of the course. While there is no dispute that the Old Course is the best example of the merits of minimalism, Fazio makes the point there is certainly more than one way to achieve really, really, good golf.
Congaree is also very good at being very challenging while still being very fun. Firm and fast is a big factor here as well as the number of strategic options. I’ll get into more detail on this as I go through the holes, but a skilled golfer will find the course difficult while someone of much less skill can get around just as well, albeit differently. But it’s what the course asks of you and endless possibilities of shots that makes it fun. I also found it to be a very good match play course. There are opportunities for equalizers as I like to call them, where a golfer with one strong skill set will not be able to hide the other aspects of their game for long, yet will also find their chances to capitalize.
It’s certainly unique. I found it to be a combination of Pine Valley, Pinehurst and Royal Melbourne. Pine Valley for the challenge, variety and topography; Pinehurst for the visuals, angles and interaction between the fairway and greens; and Melbourne for the bunkers and their interaction with the fairways. While at first blush it may appear as a low country course that’s lush enough for an aerial attack to each green, the movement of the fairways and greens makes it much more complex than that. The course also does not have rough, which enhances (almost asserts) the firm and fast conditions and significantly impacts strategy. With bunkers, water and native areas waiting off the fairways and the movement of the terrain feeding into them, maneuvering and navigating the course becomes imperative, limiting the extent the power game has in scoring well. It’s another unique aspect of this course in this area, yet again ramping up both the fun and challenge.
Congaree was awarded best new private course by Golf Digest, the first of what I anticipate will be numerous accolades.
Beyond the course, the club pervades a sense of comfort and ease that hits you immediately after getting out of the car. The low country is alive and well here. Being from the northeast but growing up in Southern California, I love the familiarity and friendliness. The grounds are spread out amongst the oak trees, with the pro shop in one, the main clubhouse in another; and the starter’s shack just that; a set of wooden stairs to a screen door that opens up into a small unmanned room. There are no cart paths, as the course is meant to be walked. There are also no tees. While the scorecard has tees measured off, each group is free to tee up where they would like. There’s also no slope rating here. To me, this signifies the course is meant to be enjoyed and the focus on either a match among friends or the subdued surroundings. I loved my caddie’s mantra, “just let the club do all the work;” it fit in so well with the rest of the aura here.
I flew in to Savannah just in time for dinner, then had some time the next morning before we headed out. Savannah is one of my favorite cities, with its architecture and the hanging Spanish Moss that we don’t see up north. It reminds me of Santa Barbara in the sense that both are visualizing stunning and both are sizable without being sprawling metropolises. After walking around in unusually cold weather, I finally met up with my friends and we headed out to Congaree.
Driving in through the gate, that Spanish Moss I was so fond of in Savannah was here as well, hanging lazily in the oak trees that lined the drive in. Pulling in, we headed into one of the main houses, which we were told was rebuilt after being burned down by General Sherman in the Civil War. Walking to the main house for lunch, we were able to take in the place, met our gracious host, then sauntered over to the range to warm up. Everything can be walked, so switching from the range to the putting green to get a feel for the speed was a great idea.
While I would have been a happy man staying at the clubhouse and talking with the bartender about everything from the best burger places in Los Angeles to if the Eagles were making the playoffs, there was golf to be played. So after meeting my caddie and figuring out the match, we were off. Whoops, first tee shot pulled way left. Just hit another one. Ok, now we’re off.
The First is a 375 yard par 4 (from the Middle tees). The opening tee shot is framed with trees and sand on either side yet is wide enough to work the ball. The sand is shallow here leading up to the green. Any sand area or bunker is considered a waster area, so you’re allowed to ground your club in them. The fairway dog legs left slightly but with a well hit tee shot, the green should be right in front of you. The green is set to the right of the fairway, with a bunker right front and areas that slope away from the green to the left and on the back side. Careful with favoring the left side to accommodate a miss; the speed of the slope can take the ball into the plants. It’s much better to go right at the green and end up short or even in the bunker on my opinion. You could always punch shot the approach and get the ball dancing up to the green. The green moves right to left and back to front, but left to right on the extreme left side. Lag putting is at a premium here, as the speed makes it very easy to run the ball past. I think I started putting half what I thought I needed. It’s a nice opening hole with just enough strategy and distance to acquaint a little with what to expect during the round.
The Second is a 515 yard par 5. Heading uphill with a forced carry tee shot over water, the fairway is wider than it looks from the tee. Bunkers eat in to the fairway from the left and right, respectively, then an oak tree on the left compromises approach shots on that side, forcing staying center over to the right. The fairway deviously slopes off to the right on that side of the tree, so placement of the second shot gets tricky. Past the oak tree, the hole opens up to the green with bunkers guarding the green on either side and slopes running quick away from the green on all sides. It all starts with the tee shot, but the second and third shots should be plotted carefully. A nice par 5 that ramps up the strategy and challenge from the First.
The Third is a 270 yard par 4. A short par 4 that’s a healthy forced carry over water, hitting the green is a possibility from the tee. The green is narrow and deep and with its speed, any tee shot is likely to run off the green, into the bunker on the right or short grass area to the left. The landing area after the water widens, allowing those more conservative to play for a shorter approach shot from. The green is diabolical, running in general from back to front. Whether you want to flop it off the green, run it or something else, surgical touch is necessary.
The Fourth is a 555 yard par 5. Beset on all sides by sand, the tee shot heads out to a ridge in the fairway that starts is descent to the green on the other side. Get to that ridge, my friend. At the ridge, the fairway and green are before you, with trees shifting from one side to the other and water off to the right up to the green. The shape, movement and speed of the green dictate how one should approach it. Moving very fast from left to right with a bunker front center, the water is very much in play for those going for the pin, as shots just offline to the right or even coming in a little hot risk bouncing and rolling in. Going over the bunker and having the ball fall down towards the hole is a good play, so long as the tree on the left doesn’t interfere. I was fond of the punch shot, watching roll on from the left side and then take that speed to move down and right to the pin. Regardless of how you want to get it done, the second shot is the time to set it up. I’d even venture that aiming for the bunker could turn out well. The approach was one of my favorites on the course. The movement of the green and number of options getting to the pin made it a blast.
The Fifth is a 135 yard par 3. A forced carry over water to a green set at an angle to the tee and moving back to front, away from the bunker and towards the water. Taking more club to ensure carrying the water is fine but then landing past the hole means a touchy shot back downhill to the pin. Long and right will hit the slope and roll well away from the hole, again requiring delicacy in recovery. Keep in mind the wind as well, which can impact distances substantially. As the first par 3 of the round, it’s short but keeps the round challenging and engaging.
The Sixth is a 455 yard par 4. A dog leg left, the tee shot is a milder forced carry to a nice wide fairway that starts turning right away. There’s room on the right, yet the temptation is to go left and cut off the turn. Trees on that side, as well as the deeper sand, make it a risky proposition. The fairway cants left as well, but clearing the trees on the left and having a clear look at the green is paramount. Our work is only half done. The approach is to a green uphill of the fairway angled away from the fairway, moving right to left, towards the deep bunker area below the green. The high right side of the green allows the ball to roll down to the center of the green but there are so many avenues to the pin, all of them fun albeit challenging. Another one of my favorite holes and green complexes.
The Seventh is a 155 yard par 3. The forced carry tee shot streak stays alive, with sand immediately in front of the tee and water on the right that cuts into the center, just short of the green. The green moves feverishly to the water and this can’t be emphasized enough. The front half of the green is where I liked to aim, left side, so if I end up short, I’m still dry and still putting/chipping uphill. Any chip or putt downhill is treacherous. I did see a putt roll right past the hole and into the water. While it wasn’t my ball, it was that of my partner so it hurt just the same. This hole demands precision.
The Eighth is a 450 yard par 5. An “S” shaped hole where the fairway twists from left to right, presenting a risk reward tee shot in carrying as much of the right side as possible while carrying the sand that runs along the right side, pretty much up to the green. While the more left you go is safer, there are trees on that side that can complicate the second shot if you’re too far over on the left side. We played this hole from the very back once and while the longer hitters took on the water and center line, I went left, happy to punch under the trees and get plenty of roll to set up a very manageable approach. While a couple of the longer guys were caught up in the right side sand or short of the green, I was able to stay in the hole by simply taking an alternate route and taking advantage of the speed of the fairway. The fairway rises then falls and turns down and right to the green, while sand continues to be right and then short of the green. Whether you decide to go for the green and take on the sand or use the fairway on the left to move the ball down to the green is a matter of preference, strategy and where you are in your match. The Eighth will become one of the better known holes and for good reason. Its flexibility, visuals and movement of the terrain are incredible.
The Ninth is a 405 yard par 4. The halfway house is just before the Ninth tee. The soup and meat pies were fantastic, basically making me happy I was walking to stay awake since such comfort food made a mid round nap seem like a good idea. A dog leg left initially that starts bending back to the right after the leg, the right side widens out, inviting tee shots in that direction, only to create much longer approach shots. Staying close to the left side off the tee is another option, which if done correctly results in a much shorter approach. Water lurks to the right side of the green as well. The green moves away from the green side bunker and towards the water, again moving like there’s no tomorrow. If there’s a reprieve hole on the front, this is it, yet the tee shot is vital.
The front nine is set on the southeast side of the property, and features a little more water and distance than the back. The par 5’s are spectacular while the par 4’s are strategic and diverse. There are no weak holes and I’d say there are a few that are all-world. My ranking of them would be 8, 4, 6, 3, 2, 1, 9, 5, 7.
The back nine starts with the 150 yard par 3 Tenth. My apologies in advance for some of the long shadows in the photos; it was that time of year where the sun stays low. This is a forced carry over wetlands where the green is raised, while slopes ramp up to it on all sides except for the right front, where a bunker resides. Trees encroach on the right side as well while the left is more open, so many will be tempted to favor the left, yet will have a very tricky chip or putt to the pin since the green moves towards the bunker and right side. There is lots of room on the left, but the recovery shot will be tough on that side, especially with the slopes. Again, some what of a reprieve but demanding all at the same time.
The Eleventh is a 435 yard par 4. A forced carry over native woodland area to a fairway that immediately turns right and essentially keeps turning until you reach the green. The fairway tilts from left to right, with sand running along the entire right side. Well, sand runs along the entire left side for that matter, but at least it’s shallower and above the fairway and green. The green is deep and tilts like the fairway, with a well placed piece of native area high and left to make sure it’s not too much o a bail out area on that side. There is the very real possibility of balls running into the bunker on the right if one gets too aggressive on the high side of the green. The hole is a bit different from what we have encountered thus far, mainly because the trees seem to impose themselves much more than previously.
The Twelfth is a 470 yard par 5. While the Eleventh turns right dramatically, this fairway does the same to the left. The fairway narrows as it turns, with pines looming on each side amongst sandy areas. The green is almost an island awash in a sea of bunkers, carved around it with the edges dropping off on them. It’s an intimidating approach shot, as one needs to land on the green, then make sure their ball stops moving. There is an opening in front for those who want to try and run it on, but the opening is on the smaller side, so even the punch shots need to be spot on. Another well done par 5 with a unique green that brings it another level of character.
The Thirteenth is a 410 yard par 4. A dog leg right where trying to clear the trees on the right is necessary for a clear shot to the green. The green is set on the right as well and slightly downhill of the fairway. There is a bunker on the front right side, which the green moves towards. With the speed of the fairway, if the trees are still an issue on the approach, running the ball low is an option. The last few holes tighten up a little on width, so anything offline gets a little trickier to deal with, while here anything wildly to the left is probably gone. Accuracy becomes more of a premium even though the back nine is shorter.
The Fourteenth is a 190 yard par 3. A longer par 3 that’s a forced carry over sand, but there’s a good amount of room short and to the sides to miss. Missing long or right gives the toughest recovery shots. Accounting for what the ball will do once it lands is necessary because the green moves from right to left like a crazed madman. The width is back here, so take advantage.
The Fifteenth is a 300 yard par 4. Another all world short par 4, the sand and ridges create the impression there’s very little fairway out there. This may tempt some to try and drive the green, while others will lay up to the fairway area on the right that allows itself to be seen. Taking a line left over the sand in that direction is also a good play, as the ball can then run out to the front or left side of the green. I aimed for sand on the right side of the green, then got it close to the pin from there. Again, so many different ways to play this hole, the visuals from off the tee are effective and the green complex is a challenge. One of my favorites here.
The Sixteenth is a 365 yard par 4. Relatively straight, the well places oak on the left impacts the play of the hole a lot more than it appears at first blush. Bellowing out the tee shot to the middle of the fairway is the way to go, but driver isn’t necessarily the club to go with. Hitting the fairway is at a premium, so something shorter off the tee is a good consideration. The bunker on the right runs the width of the green, which is at an angle (about 7:00 – 2:00) with the fairway. Coming in from the left side is a great idea if you’d like to use the ground and the oak tree becomes irrelevant since you’ll be staying low anyways. The run runs from right to left and while there’s plenty of room to miss long and left, shots from those area will be touchy with the green speed.
The Seventeenth is a 430 yard par 4. Another big right turn of a hole, where the sand on the right goads you into trying to take off more than you probably can off the tee. There’s plenty of room to the left and in clearing the trees on the right, you’ll have a great line to the green, which is a little below the fairway and is just begging for a nice low runner coming in. But back to the tee shot, there’s a spot where if you carry the bunkers far enough, a ridge will send the ball forward and you get an extra 20 yards of roll, setting up an even shorter approach. The approach is inviting, perhaps one of the more inviting on the course, so the shorter the better. With how tempting the right side is, the left is such a more logical play in my opinion. A longer approach to such an inviting green with a ton of room at the entry point? I’ll take it.
The Eighteenth is a 345 yard par 4. After all of those hard and long turns, the course finally says screw it, we’re gonna stop beating around the bush and make a full right angle turn to the green here. The tee shot looking head on at the clubhouse, the green is due east. Sand and water ride up the right side of the fairway, and green, making any tee shot not getting to the turn a forced carry to the green. So laying up off the tee is fine, at the expense of a tougher approach shot, while a belted the shot is rewarded with a nice short approach that can be taken on the ground or air, dealer’s choice.
I played worse than I usually do my second round and just became more tied up as the round went on. On the tee shot here, I ended up left, in the trees on that side, my ball sitting on pine straw and who knows what else. I was all set to punch out and leave myself a short approach when my caddie told me to go for the green. The lie’s not that bad and you have this shot, he told me. Addressing the ball, that moment of clarity struck me, where all the whispers and thoughts evaporated and I intrinsically knew how to get that ball off the underbrush, over the sand and water and on the green, where it would roll ever so true straight to the hole. It all became so easy in that brief moment, that when the ball sailed through the air and missed going in by a couple feet, it was almost as if I knew all along it would be so. Those shots; those moments, happen to us all and I suspect that those windows of time, no matter how brief, are so vivid and esoteric that they are one of the many unique gifts this game gives us, which we all pursue in our own way as we journey along.
It was a great ending to my time here.
The back nine loops the northwest side of the property, gets tighter in spots than the front and is much shorter. The variety of shots and greens was tremendous and like the front, there were no weak holes. I would rank them 15, 17, 18, 12, 11, 16, 13, 14, 10.
Generally, Congaree quickly became one of my favorites of all time. Not knowing all that much about the course before arriving, I was enamored with the movement of the holes and how firm and fast it played. The strategy and options are what kept the challenge and fun feeding off each other. Everything was well placed and each shot was met with equal parts excitement, focus and trepidation. There were other shots that created temptation or intimidation, all through the design. The main thing I loved though was the speed and movement. It wasn’t enough to know the distance to whatever target and swing the club you normally hit that far; anticipating what would happen to the ball once it landed was just as important. And this entails knowing the terrain. This also makes the course much more diverse and flexible. Along with the width, the course is susceptible to wind yet is versatile enough to be played in such conditions. Ideal for match play, Congaree has a way of tantalizing the more skilled (or boastful) while always keeping the door open for the less skilled opponent who is either more temperate or wielding a sharp putter.
The combination of the movement in such a setting is magnificent. The vast sand areas contrasted with sweeping and rolling fairways, anchored with majestic oaks and pines, is sublime. Being able to interact with the landscape and use the ground game so frequently and effectively engages the player in it even more.
I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more about Congaree. For the course, for the clubhouse and for everything it’s doing beyond, that’s a very good thing for golf.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The clubhouse and pro shop are in different cottages, a nice walk in between. The pro shop is tasteful and nicely stocked while the clubhouse may be one of my favorites. Charming and unassuming with various rooms, the sunken bar overlooking the Eighteenth is a great place to hang out for the day.
There is also on-site lodging, with each being a free standing cottage.
Practice area: Full range, short game and putting areas. Make use of them.