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Craft, Congaree welcome PGA

Former Bobcat credits late Elmwood legend as influence, prepares for PGA Tour event

PHOTO PROVIDED - Tom Craft, a 2008 Marshalltown High School graduate, poses in front of signage for the Palmetto Championship at Congaree — this week’s PGA Tour event at Congaree Golf Club in Ridgeland, S.C. Craft is the club professional at Congaree.

Over the course of two and a half months, former Marshalltown High School golfer Tom Craft went from the head professional at one of the most prestigious new golf courses in the country, to the head professional at a course that will be playing host to a PGA Tour event this coming weekend.

Starting Thursday morning, the Palmetto Championship at Congaree Golf Club will take place in Ridgeland, South Carolina. Coverage will be on Golf Channel Thursday and Friday, with Golf Channel and CBS giving coverage in the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday.

It’s the culmination of a journey for Craft that began as a teenager working at Elmwood Country Club for seven years under the tutelage of the late Marshalltown golf legend Jerry Johnson.

“He was really the driving force for me to get into the operations side of golf,” Craft said. “He was just an unbelievable guy. We call him the Hank Hill of golf, he sells golf clubs and golf clubs accessories. There’s a lot of assistants that he’s led onto bigger and better things, and I would just be one of those guys.”

After working under Johnson and learning about the business of golf courses, Craft said he worked at courses across the country after graduating from Florida Gulf Coast University in 2014 and he wound up at a course in North Carolina called Diamond Creek Golf Club as an assistant pro.

But in 2016, he was given the opportunity to come to the poorest county in South Carolina and be the head professional at a private golf course built on what used to be an 18th-century rice plantation by renowned golf course architect Tom Fazio. Craft jumped at the chance. Now, the two-time T-R City Championship winner (2008 and 2010) has been at Congaree for five years.

Congaree, he said, is unique in a lot of ways. Not least is the mission behind the course. The Congaree Foundation is the underlying reason the course has only two official members and founders — businessman Dan Friedkin and the late owner of the Houston Texans, Bob McNair. Instead, the foundation and the course were set up in part to use golf as a way to positively impact the lives of young people, according to the foundation’s website. The Congaree Foundation’s main initiative is the Global Golf Initiative. According to the foundation’s website, “Its mission is to provide 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.”

Another primary initiative from the foundation is the “#RechargeTheSarge” project. Congaree purchased Sergeant Jasper Golf Club, a nine-hole course in Ridgeland. The project has raised money with the help of PGA Tour player Lucas Glover among others, and Craft said that area high school players will be able to practice and play on the course for free — another attempt to raise the amount of access to the game for kids in Jasper County.

The foundation getting a national spotlight over the weekend as two of the top-10 golfers in the world (Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka) take part is a big moment for the project, Craft said.

“It’s unbelievable,” Craft said. “It’s been a long road for us here and we’re moving so quickly, but the more exposure that we can get for the foundation, then the better for the foundation. We just want to help support the local community and those Congaree kids around the world as much as possible, and we think this is a good way to do it.”

The course itself will be unique for the players as well, as it is much more like PGA Championship site Kiawah Island (also in South Carolina) or a British links course than many courses pros will see on the PGA Tour schedule during the 2021-22 season. The course is long, with firm fairways and a bounty of natural sand areas lining each hole. Like Kiawah, there will be no recognized bunkers at the course. It will likely present a strong challenge for the players, and Craft said he is excited to see it in action.

Craft has been in and around the game of golf for most of his life. But as the PGA Tour comes to his course to test its mettle, Craft couldn’t help but bring the conversation back to Johnson and the impact he had on getting Craft to where he is today.

“He was sort of a figurehead within the community,” Craft said. “He was just a great guy and I learned a lot from him.”

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