How a former Texas football star and energy magnate has built the perfect amateur golf event

·5 min read

TRINITY, Texas — Corby Robertson knew a thing or two about routing golf courses. Yes, the sport Robertson was most closely associated with was football — he was highly recruited by University of Texas coaching legend Darrell Royal then twice named All-American while captaining the Longhorns to the 1969 Cotton Bowl — but golf had always been in the Houston native’s blood.

When Robertson and his sister, Beth, made a land swap that effectively moved Austin Country Club to its current location, he worked with famed architect Pete Dye on the development of the course that now hosts the WGC-Dell Match Play, even taking a trip to see the Oklahoma masterpiece Oak Tree to better understand Dye’s genius.

“Pete once made a statement to me and said there’s nothing in the rules of golf that said it had to be fair,” Robertson told the Austin American-Statesman’s Kirk Bohls back in 2016.

But how Robertson turned a stunning piece of East Texas property into one of the country’s best (and most secluded) golf venues has more to do with camaraderie than course design.

Robertson — who didn’t declare for the NFL draft after an impressive college career because “those guys all made about $25,000 and I thought I could do much better” — had built Camp Olympia with UT roommate Chris Gilbert on a stunning site less than an hour from Huntsville. The idea behind the camp was to get teens to bond and to grow three essential pieces that Robertson holds dear — body, mind and spirit.

And originally, the course hosted what Robertson called “olf, which is golf without the greens.” As part of the camp’s weekly routine, eager campers would hit shots off a tee to a wide-open “green” that was simply a pushed-up piece of turf with a washtub in the middle. The kids loved it. Robertson jokes that the game could have been revolutionary.

“It would have been a more popular game,” he told Golfweek in September. “You make more holes-in-one and you don’t ever miss three-foot putts.”

But over time, Robertson and others realized this would be a prime piece of property for a golf course. By then, he’d become an energy magnate, first in oil, then in coal, and had the financial means to create the course. In the 1990s, when beetles started eating away some of the camp’s trees, he decided to make a go of it, starting with a series of three legit holes, then adding irrigation systems and creating the course that now tops Golfweek’s Best private courses in Texas list: Whispering Pines.

“We liked it. But if we were really going to do this we said, ‘What is golf missing?’ At the time, golf was missing the Olympics,” Robertson said.

So he decided to mix two of his passions — Camp Olympia and a new golf course. Soon after, in 2001, the Spirit International Amateur Golf Tournament was born, a biennial event with teams featuring two men and two women from each of 20 countries that span six continents.

After they built it — Robertson’s team worked with the Jack Nicklaus design team on the course — the world’s top ams started showing up in droves. When this year’s teams arrive for the 10th playing of the event (the 2017 event was canceled due to Hurricane Harvey), they’ll add to an impressive roster of amateur golfers who’ve made the journey to Whispering Pines. Among those who have won a title at the event are Lorena Ochoa, Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth, Lexi Thompson, Scottie Scheffler, Austin Ernst and Will Zalatoris.

This year, a power-packed lineup that includes the Nos. 1 and 2 female amateurs in the world will lead the way for Team USA. Stanford teammates Rose Zhang and Rachel Heck will lead the American contingent while Texas A&M’s Sam Bennett and Michigan State’s James Piot round out the squad. Piot won the U.S. Amateur in August.

The tournament is known for having five concurrent competition categories: international team, men’s team and women’s team, and men’s and women’s individual stroke play competitions. It will be played Nov. 4-6 and broadcast on Golf Channel as well as the Spirit’s website.

A series of flags line a lake at Whispering Pines, ranked as Golfweek’s Best top private golf course in the state of Texas. (Contributed photo)

Players stay at Camp Olympia and partake in a number of club traditions, like line dancing and karaoke. While golf has returned to the Olympics with professionals, Robertson thinks his event has somehow maintained the amateur flavor the Olympics was originally intended to foster.

“I feel like maybe we inspired the Olympics to have golf. I hope we’ve been part of the inspiration. There are 200 other sports, why not golf?” he said. “But this wasn’t designed for pros. For stadium golf, we would have had to clear every tree on this property. There’s room to do that, but the beauty and the ambiance of this place, it would just be a shame.

“Listen, good amateurs are going to a great tournament every week. None of them have a camp attached. They live together in camp cabins and we turn these players into friends. Camp makes lifelong friends and it builds character. The mission of Camp Olympia is to have fun together but make people grow in body, mind and spirit. To do that with a bunch of very accomplished golfers? Well, that is just a plus.”