By ron green jr.
Twice in recent years, the PGA Tour has gone looking for a place to host events on short notice to fill holes in its pandemic-pocked schedule.
Both times, the tour found its spot at Congaree, an elegantly understated Lowcountry pearl, tucked into a remote corner of South Carolina defined mostly by the whir of traffic racing down Interstate 95 a mile or two away.
For all that Congaree is – it’s good enough that both the USGA and the PGA of America have been told they are welcome to bring their events at any time after successfully hosting the tour’s Palmetto Championship and CJ Cup – it has distinguished itself in large part because of John McNeely, whose grace and good nature have been a guiding force.
McNeely is to Congaree – and to Diamond Creek in the North Carolina mountains where he spends his summers – what grapes are to wine. It is one thing to have the property and the people willing to fund a vision for something more than a golf club. It is something else to have McNeely, Global Golf Post’s “pro’s pro” for 2023, as a north star of sorts.
McNeely is more than an ambassador or director of golf emeritus. He is a caretaker, schooled under Claude Harmon at Winged Foot, and devoted to the game and the people who play it.
“It’s an overly used term, but he is the consummate golf professional. He took the Harmon model to a new level,” said Bruce Davidson, director of golf at Congaree and a friend of McNeely’s since they met at River Oaks Country Club in Houston more than 40 years ago.
“John has a humility about him that is second to none in the game. Mr. Harmon’s doctrine was we had to be the best players and the best teachers in the clubs where we worked. That was the way we served the members. No one has walked that walk better than John.”
Golf professionals and professional golfers are different breeds tied together by the game. McNeely learned during his time at East Tennessee State, where he was a teammate of Bobby Wadkins and occasional practice round companion of Wadkins’ brother, Lanny, that competitive golf wasn’t his future.
In 1976 and ’77, McNeely apprenticed under Harmon at Winged Foot, absorbing lessons big and small.
“It was the most meaningful thing to me,” McNeely said. “It was immeasurable how it helped me get started.”
When Claude’s son Dick became head pro at River Oaks, McNeely followed him to Texas. McNeely’s career path has since taken him to Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California; Annandale Golf Club in Madison, Mississippi; The Floridian in Palm City, Florida, where he struck up a friendship with entrepreneur Wayne Huzienga; and Grandfather Golf and Country Club in the North Carolina mountains.
McNeely’s hand is in all of it, from the course design to the white cabins onsite to the students who spend time in the early summer preparing for college with golf as a backdrop.
Whether it was something as small as teeing up practice balls for members during a lesson or bringing visions to life at Diamond Creek and Congaree, McNeely has the gift of making it look and feel easy.
“Manners, the way he dressed, the way he comported himself on and off the golf course. No one has done it better than John,” Davidson said.
“He was always a better teacher than me and a better player. He’s a gifted athlete, one of those guys who’s just good at everything.”
“He’s the worst cook I’ve ever seen,” Davidson said.
Just as Harmon set young professionals on a path to success, McNeely has done the same thing. The McNeely tree is full of branches.
“The way he treats people is amazing. I’ve never seen anybody take care of people the way he does,” said Oliver Peacock, head pro at Belle Meade Country Club in Nashville.
“I first met him at the Floridian in 1998, (and) I had never met anyone like him. I was so impressed and wowed by him and his staff. There’s not a moment (in my job) that I don’t think about what John would do here.”
It was McNeely who scouted the land in the ancient Blue Ridge Mountains that Huizenga purchased to become Diamond Creek. McNeely helped Huizenga create an exclusive club in 2000 centered around a Tom Fazio-designed course that is as charming and challenging as it is picturesque, and with a clubhouse that’s worth the trip.
After meeting Houston businessmen Dan Friedkin and the late Bob McNair in 2012 at Diamond Creek, McNeely and Davidson wanted to create a club together. They landed on Congaree and a unique concept.
The club has ambassadors rather than members. Congaree doesn’t charge initiation fees but asks its ambassadors to contribute to a philanthropic mission of helping educate young golfers from around the world while also providing economic relief to Jasper County, one of South Carolina’s poorest counties in a state that ranks near the bottom of the U.S. in income.
It, too, features a Fazio course that breaks the designer’s mold, playing fast and firm like an Australian Sandbelt course and good enough to test the best players in the world.
“The part with Congaree and the young people has been unbelievably terrific,” McNeely said.
Taking two tour events to a spot as secluded as Congaree – 45 minutes from Hilton Head Island and 30 minutes from Beaufort – is a testament to McNeely and the people around him.
Asked recently if he has retired as a 70-year-old, McNeely gently pushed back.
“Don’t say I’m retired,” McNeely said. “I may be stepping aside from some daily duties, but I will still keep my nose in it.”
He will be in the North Carolina mountains in the summer and around Congaree in the fall and winter, and even if he’s someplace else, McNeely’s touch will be felt.
“It’s been a dream,” McNeely said.
Top: John McNeely
courtesy conagree foundation