Top course: Whispering Pines in Trinity

February 27th 2007 - It's no secret: Acclaimed course repeats as No. 1 layout in the state

11:24 AM CST on Thursday, February 22, 2007 By RICHARD DURRETT / The Dallas Morning News

Mark Butler wasn't sure what to expect when Whispering Pines golf professional Chris Rowe told him three years ago to make the three-hour drive from Dallas to Trinity to check out an unknown course. Butler, a 50-year-old real estate developer from Dallas, is a golf enthusiast. He's spent the weekend in a cottage at Augusta National, and he's stayed in plush accommodations near Pebble Beach and Cypress Point.

"Those places were great, but there's something special about Whispering Pines," said Butler, one of the club's 160 members. "You feel like you're the only person there. The minute you drive down the road and through the pines, you forget everything else."

For the second consecutive year, The Dallas Morning News' Texas Golf panel voted Whispering Pines the No. 1 course in the state. Dallas National, Colonial Country Club and Brook Hollow Golf Club were close behind at Nos. 2-4. Those four courses were separated by .218.

A few years ago, Whispering Pines was an undiscovered jewel situated in the middle of towering trees on land owned by Corby Robertson, a gas, oil, coal and timber entrepreneur.

Robertson wanted his own Augusta National in Texas, with fast greens, immaculate conditions and fair, challenging and memorable holes. And he also wanted a destination where golfers could think only about golf for the weekend. That's what he has, and it's not a secret anymore. Golf Digest voted the course No. 11 in its 50 Greatest Golf Resorts. It was the only course from Texas on the list.

"It's a phenomenal experience, from the cottages to the food to the course," said Gary Knott, who is self-employed in real estate and has an imaging business in Arlington. "You just worry about having a good time."

The course has four cottages named after four golf courses St. Andrew's, Augusta National, Pine Valley and Ballybunion. Robertson's wife, Barbara, handled the interior design and made each cabin unique, with different colors, furniture and artwork.

Each cottage sleeps up to eight, so the most members staying at the course per night is 32. That helps golfers feel like they are the only ones on the property.

They can bring food to eat at the cottages or have the chef prepare meals in the dining room.

Members say it's the attention to detail that makes a difference. On one weekend trip with friends, Butler mentioned to the staff that he had some steaks that he was going to grill that night after golf.

"We got off the course and the table was set in the cabin, the chef had fixed salad and put it in the ice box and had potatoes ready to cook, and all I had to do was grill the steaks," Butler said.

But what makes the weekend is the golf.

"You walk off the course and you remember every hole," said Bruce Davidson, director of golf at Houston's River Oaks Country Club. "Every hole has its own character and feel, and that's special. It's a beautiful place, and it's a challenging but fair course. I like that."

Members say they usually spot hawks, deer and even alligators on the course. Some, like Knott, don't hesitate to grab their fishing rods and try to catch some smallmouth bass after the round.

"That's all part of the whole experience," Rowe said. "We want this place to be one where our members can stay for the weekend, play on a great golf course and get away. We like it when they mention they've seen all the wildlife, had a great meal, enjoyed staying in the cottages and loved the golf.

"It means they had a stress-free and enjoyable time."

Opened: March 2000
Designer: Chet Williams (Nicklaus Designs)
Length: 7,480 yards from the tips (also tees of 6,695 and 6,020)
Signature holes: The final six holes run along Caney Creek and Lake Livingston and provide picturesque views.
Members: 160, including about 40 from the Dallas area
Tournaments: The Texas State Amateur comes to the club in June. The Spirit, an international amateur event played every two years, will be held in October.
Notable: Four holes were lengthened for tournament play No. 3 is a 210-yard par 3; No. 4 is a 470-yard par 4; No. 17 is a 603-yard par 5; and No. 18 is a 499-yard par 4. ... The course is open only 27 weeks a year, keeping the traffic low and allowing the course to look great when it's played.