TRINITY – Corby Robertson knew a thing or two about golf course routing. Yes, the sport Robertson was most closely associated with was soccer – he was highly recruited by University of Texas coaching legend Darrell Royal and then named an All-American twice while leading the Longhorns to the Cotton Bowl in 1969 – but golf has always been in the hands of Houston blood.
When Robertson and his sister Beth carried out a land swap that effectively moved the Austin Country Club to its current location, he worked with famed architect Pete Dye on the development and even undertook one of the course that is now home to the WGC-Dell Match Play Excursion to see Oklahoma’s Oak Tree masterpiece to better understand Dye’s genius.
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“Pete once testified to me that there was nothing in the rules of golf that said it had to be fair,” said Austin American Statesman’s Kirk Bohls in 2016.
But how Robertson turned a stunning East Texas property into one of the best (and most secluded) golf courses in the country has more to do with camaraderie than course design.
Robertson – who did not sign up for the NFL Draft after an impressive college career because “these guys all made about $ 25,000 and I thought I could do a lot better” – had Camp Olympia with UT roommate Chris Gilbert built on stunning grounds in less than a year an hour from Huntsville. The idea behind the camp was to get teenagers to bond in order to develop three essential things that Robertson cares about – body, mind and spirit.
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And originally the course housed what Robertson called “olf”, which is golf without greens. As part of the camp’s weekly routine, eager campers hit a tee shot onto a wide open “green” that was simply a pushed-up piece of lawn 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 do more holes-in-ones and never miss a three-foot putt.”
But as time went on, Robertson and others realized that this would be prime property for a golf course. By then he was an energy tycoon, first oil, then coal, and had the financial means to make the course. In the 1990s, when bugs started eating some of the camp’s trees, he decided to give it a try, starting with a series of three legitimate holes, then irrigation systems, and creating what is now the best private golf week in Texas tops list: whispering pines.
“We liked it. But if we really wanted to do that, we’d say, ‘What’s wrong with golf?’ Back then, golf lacked the Olympics, ”said Robertson.
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So he decided to mix two of his passions – Camp Olympia and a new golf course. Shortly afterwards, in 2001, the Spirit International Amateur Golf Tournament was launched, a biennial event with teams of two men and two women from 20 countries on six continents.
After building it – Robertson’s team worked with Jack Nicklaus’ design team on the track – the world’s best Ams appeared in droves. When this year’s teams arrive for the 10th game of the event (2017 event was canceled due to Hurricane Harvey), they will add to an impressive list of amateur golfers who have made the trip to Whispering Pines. Among the winners of the event are Lorena Ochoa, Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth, Lexi Thompson, Scottie Scheffler, Austin Ernst and Will Zalatoris.
This year, a strong line-up that includes the # 1 and # 2 amateur women in the world will lead the way for Team USA. Stanford teammates Rose Zhang and Rachel Heck will lead the American squad, while Sam Bennett of Texas A&M and James Piot of Michigan State complete the roster. Piot won the US Amateur last month.
Known for its five concurrent competition categories: international teams, men’s and women’s teams, and individual stroke play competitions for men and women, the tournament will run from November 4th to 6th. It airs on both the Golf Channel and the Spirit website.
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Players stay at Camp Olympia and participate in a number of club traditions such as line dancing and karaoke. While golf has returned to the Olympics with professionals, Robertson believes his event has somehow retained the amateur taste that the Olympics were originally intended to promote.
“I have a feeling that maybe the Olympics inspired golf. I hope we were part of the inspiration. There are 200 other sports, why not golf? ”He said. “But that wasn’t intended for professionals. For stadium golf we would have had to cut down every tree on this property. There’s space for that, but the beauty and ambience of this place would be a shame.
“Listen, good amateurs go to a great tournament every week. None of them have affiliated a camp. They live together in camp huts and we make these players friends. Camp makes friends for life and it builds character. Camp Olympia’s mission is to have fun together, but to let people grow in body, mind and soul. To do that with a bunch of very accomplished golfers? Well, that’s just a plus. “
Tim Schmitt is the editor-in-chief of Golfweek, golf coordinator for the USA Today Network and lives in Round Rock in a driver and wedge from Dell Diamond.