Congaree connection is huge thrill for Lorne Kelly
After seeing his professional career stopped in its tracks by an untimely shoulder injury, he then became something of a pioneer through setting up a company that continues to help promising young British golfers secure scholarships at US colleges and universities.
He reflects on all of that with a sense of pride and rightly so, yet there is no disguising the increased tone of excitement in Lorne Kelly’s voice when he talks about his latest venture in golf.
Along with fellow Scot Bruce Davidson, he’s involved with Congaree Golf Club, which, according to the main message on its website, is a “world-class golf club with a philanthropic mission at its core”.
Located in Ridgeland in South Carolina, it staged a PGA Tour event, the Palmetto Championship, last year, but, with all due respect to everywhere else in the US and even further afield, it’s no ordinary tournament venue.
A limited number of ambassadors, people with money, clout and expertise, help provide a dream opportunity for youngsters in the US and elsewhere around the world with golfing ability but lacking financial, parental or social support
Through Congaree Global Golf Initiative, they receive intensive training over a four-week period under the watchful eye of world-renowned coaches. At the same time, expert academic consultants offer advice and guidance on the college admission process and other educational skills.
“It’s probably the fanciest college prep camp you will ever come across in the world,” Kelly, who hails from Dunoon but now lives on the other side of the Clyde estuary in Inverkip, told Scotland on Sunday.
In his role as athletic adviser, the 48-year-old is at the heart of a process for selecting 40 kids - 20 from the US and the rest international - per year for an opportunity that is geared towards setting them up for life with golf at the heart of everything.
“We’ve got kids from Venezuela, China, Russia, you name it,” added Kelly. “Countries that historically are non-golfing countries and we enjoy the challenge of bringing kids here who’d never even have thought about US college golf but certainly do once they have experienced their time at Congaree and mixed with ultimate professionals and advisers.
“For us, it’s all about getting these deserving or under-priviliged children into colleges and universities and giving them support. The chances are very few of them will make it as players, we know that, but they have guaranteed jobs or internships waiting on them thanks to our ambassadors.
“The CEOs of these big companies worldwide are actually contacting us at the moment asking, ‘when is your first bunch going to graduate as we have internships waiting for them here’, and that’s why it is life-changing for them.”
Due to the fact that it’s not only free but also such an incredible opportunity, it’s perhaps no surprise that some people think it’s too good to be too true and ask: what’s the catch? There isn’t one.
“Through Bruce and I being involved, there will always be room for Scottish kids and the ironic thing is that we are actually struggling to get anybody this year, though an ideal candidate contacted me earlier this week,” said Kelly.
“I was chuffed to bits because it was a wee boy who took up golf at the start of the pandemic, so he was like a 32-handicapper. He’s been on his local course almost every day for the last two years and he’s now playing off five, so clearly he was a wee natural from the offset.
“His mum is a single parent, so she can’t even afford to send him to any tournaments. He’s doing well in school and that’s an absolutely classic Congaree kid.”
As a kid himself growing up on the Cowal Peninsula, Kelly had only one thing one his mind when it came to golf and, on the back of a string successes, including being part of winning teams in both the 1998 Eisenhower Trophy in Chile and that Walker Cup on Scottish soil the following year, he did, indeed, become a playing professional.
But, after just 18 months in the paid ranks, his shoulder “caved in”, sending him down a different route in the game than he’d anticipated but, ultimately, providing a good living for him, as well as real satisfaction from helping others.
“I’ve been very lucky,” insisted Kelly, who recorded his Lytham Trophy win in 1998 - the same year he triumphed in the Scottish Stroke-Play Championship in Lossiemouth - having also finished second and third either side of that success in one of the amateur game’s biggest events at the Lancashire venue.
“When I started doing Pro Dream USA and the consultancy stuff, I found all that I was doing was talking about my past experiences. It was just talking about things I did and, before you realise it, you think to yourself, ‘I’m quite good at getting the message across here’. I was only ever a golfer and that was all I was supposed to be (laughing).”
Since Nairn, where the GB&I team also included fellow Scots Graham Rankin and David Patrick, Casey has gone on to record 21 wins and play in five Ryder Cups, while Donald, of course, had a spell as world No 1.
“That’s something that has given me plenty of sleepless nights over the years,” admitted Kelly in reply to being asked if he’d ever thought what might have been but for his injury.
“There was a time at the end of my amateur career where I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend not making it in golf. But, at the same time, I’ve probably built my career on the back of playing in that Walker Cup team.
“To be able to tell people that I was part of that team has always been a big bonus for me, even though I always feel that being in a four-man GB&I team to win the Eisenhower Trophy was a bigger achievement.”
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