That’s the Spirit

April 16th 2013 -

TRINITY — From the clubhouse terrace overlooking Whispering Pines Golf Club’s 10th hole, it’s hard to fathom that during the 1990s this was the home of “Olf.”

Golf without greens, that is. The property’s owner, Corby Robertson Jr., routed a makeshift course where he, his friends and youngsters from neighboring Camp Olympia played shots toward partially buried washtubs.

“We didn’t call and ask the USGA if we could do this,” laughs Robertson, 65, a Houston energy mogul and former All-America linebacker at Texas. “We just said, ‘Let’s go have some fun.’ ”

Today the course is 13-yearold Whispering Pines, designed by Chet Williams, with most of Robertson’s original routing. It’s risen from “Olf” to powerhouse, garnering The News’ No. 1 state ranking for a record eighth straight year, breaking the mark Colonial set from 1989 to 1995.

Whispering Pines is the only Texas course ranked among the nation’s top 100 by the sport’s three major publications, Golf Digest (75th), Golf Magazine (80th) and Golfweek (26th among courses built since 1960).
Such relatively sudden acclaim is a considerable feat for a course with a remote East Texas locale (Trinity, pop. 2,697) and limited membership (capped at 160), which speaks to 7,473-yard Whispering Pines’ indelible holes, especially the closing six, and Robertson’s foresight.

“It’s unique in that it’s a wonderful place, but it has a wonderful purpose,” Robert-son says. “The people who come, I think, get the feeling of it — the spirit that sort of echoes through the woods.”
“Spirit” reverberates with multiple connotations amid the 450-acre property’s pine and hardwood forests along Lake Livingston’s shores — as well as neighboring Camp Olympia, founded in 1968 by Robertson and Longhorn teammate Chris Gilbert when they were UT seniors.

Robertson’s family owned the property on which Camp Olympia was started. In 1970, shortly after the Trinity River Authority completed the dam that created Lake Livingston, Robertson and his wife Barbara purchased the land that became Whispering Pines.
“Spirit” represents the Robertsons’ philanthropic objective when, in 1998, they created what is now called the Spirit Golf Association, a 501(c)(3) charity organization that manages Whispering Pines membership activities and helps fund various beneficiaries, including child-immunization and teen health programs.

The SGA also funds The Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship at Whispering Pines, a competition played in odd-numbered years. The Spirit, which debuted in 2001, features two-man and two-woman teams representing 20 countries from six continents.

Unusual structure

Unlike at most private golf clubs, which charge an initiation fee and monthly dues, SGA members’ annual rounds at Whispering Pines are based on the size of their donation to SGA. Whatever operational costs remain, Robertson foots the bill, within the SGA ownership structure.

“He could have this all to himself and make it ‘My little Augusta,’ but he wants to give back to charity,” says Whispering Pines head professional Chris Rowe, who came to the club in 2005 after 10 years as an assistant pro at Colonial.
“From a pro’s standpoint, there’s nobody better to work with than Corby. He wants the staff’s input. The great courses constantly improve. We just finished a driving range expansion, basically after talking about it over lunch.”

In some respects, Robert-son has indeed created his own Augusta National, as evidenced by Whispering Pines’ azaleas, world-unto-itself feel inside the gates and the Williams-designed, nine-hole par-3 course that is scheduled to open in May.
The difference, in addition to Whispering Pines’ philanthropic structure, is the absence of vanity, unlike the various Donald Trump Nationals around the country.

“I make money in the energy business,” explains Robert-son, the grandson of legendary Texas oilman Hugh Roy Cullen. “You’ve probably noticed, the energy business is a good business. It hasn’t gotten any worse since they found all these shales.
“I’m doing fine and everything is good.”

That isn’t to say Robertson isn’t passionate about Whispering Pines. It’s just that the passion stems from what the club is about, not what it is.

He says he would never have created holes for “Olf” had the presence of pine bark beetles not hastened a need to harvest many of the pines before the pests destroyed them.

As an avid golfer since learning the game at Houston’s River Oaks Country Club during his youth, Robertson saw the harvesting as an opportunity to create golf fun for Camp Olympia’s kids. Since the camp’s inception, those kids have annually included 5,000 inner-city Houston fifth-graders, as part of HISD’s outdoor education program.

Also, Robertson wasn’t just some golfer with a rough idea of creating interesting holes. He is a 5-handicap who estimates he’s played half of the world’s top 100 courses.

Since his college days, Robertson’s family owned Austin’s Davenport Ranch, which in 1984 became the relocated site of Austin Country Club, designed by Pete Dye, with considerable input from Robert-son, who as an oilman is intimately familiar with U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps relied upon by golf course architects.

“Plus, I was very familiar with the lay of the land,” Robertson said of the Davenport property. “Pete said, ‘Corby, there’s 16 great holes here, but I can’t figure out where the other two are. I led him up a deer trail — that’s now holes 11, 12, 13 and 14 — but Pete didn’t see it just looking at a topo.”

Getting serious

By the mid-’90s, Robert-son’s fun golf project in East Texas, by then known as Camp Olympic Golf Course, had 18 holes and actual Flora Dwarf greens, the first in Texas. Robertson brought friend and 1960 PGA champion Jay Hebert for a visit.
“That was a big mistake,” Robertson says. “He said, ‘This is great. You need to turn this into golf instead of ‘olf.’ ”

Robertson says he asked himself: “What can I create, along with a course, that would create an impactful and lasting legacy? He decided that what the sport needed was an Olympics of golf.
He learned that the World Team Championship, co-sponsored by the USGA and Royal & Ancient, already is played in even-numbered years.

He knew that to create his own event, he would need the support, if not endorsement, of the USGA and R&A. He enlisted the endorsement of former President George H.W. Bush, whose grandfather helped found the USGA.
Robertson flew to Scotland to meet with R&A officials. Once the prospect of starting the Spirit International in 2001 materialized, Robertson in late 1998 hired Williams to design and finish out what became Whispering Pines, which opened in March 2000.
“Frankly, if we couldn’t have set this tournament up, I’m not sure I would have built this golf course,” Robertson says. “Does the world need another nice golf course? There are plenty of golf courses and this is a nice one, but the unique thing about it, frankly, is the Spirit.

“That’s what motivated me to do it.”

Thirteen years later, the spirit echoes as a competition that draws more than 70 national champions from around the world, including the likes of Rickie Fowler, Paula Creamer, Brandt Snedeker, Louis Oosthuizen and Martin Kaymer before they became pro stars.

The spirit also echoes in Whispering Pines’ charitable endeavors, including the 1,000 kids annually who come for pitching and putting lessons under the club’s First Tee program.

The state and national rankings? They are a byproduct of the echoes.

Follow Brad Townsend on
Twitter at @Townbrad.