Feature Interview with Corby Robertson Jr.
1. What is your background? When did you first become interested in golf?
My dad was a 4 handicap golfer and introduced me to golf when I was about 10 years old. Jackson Bradley, the head pro at the River Oaks Country Club, gave me lessons. He told me that he would teach me how to hit the ball far and I’d spend the rest of my life figuring out how to hit it straight. Since I was a youngster, I have enjoyed golf with friends on courses all over the world. Every place is unique and wonderful. The game is always a challenge. It is fun to test your skills against all odds!
2. My understanding is that you envisaged starting a club to promote amateur golf and to benefit charitable causes. That is obviously noble but what was the genesis to head down that path?
Camp Olympia was founded in 1968 by Chris Gilbert and me when were juniors at UT- Austin. We built our first camp at Lake Saron, a 1800 acre timber farm in Trinity County. Camp’s history is rich with stories of campers, counselors, and staff having fun and growing in body, mind, and spirit. We have enjoyed many heartwarming moments.
In 1978, HISD entered into a 40 year agreement for Camp Olympia to become its Outdoor Education site for the fifth graders during the school year. Camp had to expand and become winterized so we moved to a 110 acre TRA park site on Lake Livingston. I acquired the adjacent 556 acres in multiple purchases over the years.
Our venture into golf course development began creatively. The Pine Park Beetle is a nemesis to the Texas Piney Woods. Our property had an old stand of pine timber that the beetles started to attack in the early 1990s, so we decided to selectively harvest the timber. We harvested the timber by clearing the trees, fairways and greens for an eighteen-hole golf course.
I had a couple of experiences in golf course design and construction. Jackson Bradley had designed a 9 fairway – 3 hole golf course at Lake Saron that opened in 1973. Camp Olympia used the unique layout for its golf program. It is natural, economical course that is a great place to teach beginners. The different doglegs and approach shots require shaping the shots to each green and pin position. Lake Saron’s golf course is a place of peace and beauty.
In the early 80s, I worked with Pete Dye to design and build the Austin Country Club which now hosts the Dell Match Play Championship. I had shown Pete a deer trail on the Davenport Ranch that became holes 11, 12, 13 and 14. I worked with Pete in the green design to create a challenging but complimentary set of greens that had character and fit naturally into the landscape. That experience gave me the confidence to create a 18 hole golf course on the 556 acres where we harvested the timber at Whispering Pines. We had owned the property and lived in a house there for 20 years, so I knew well the topography, creeks, bogs, hills, flora and fauna. Before the Lake Livingston dam was finished in 1970, I improved the shoreline and created islands, peninsulas and wetlands along Caney Creek. Those improvements created the best 6 finishing holes in Texas.
The routing followed the natural features. We saved trophy trees to accent the design; created some big greens and used wash tubs for holes; planted sahara bermuda grass that didn’t need to be watered and could be managed at little expense. With this unique approach, we invented a new game: “olf” (which is golf without the greens). Olf’s washtub vs. a golf hole eliminates the missed short putts and increases the chance for a hole in one!
Camp Olympia’s junior golf program flourished. Jay Hebert, a good friend of the Gilberts, came to advise our camp program. He was impressed with the routing and encouraged us to create a golf course out of it. With Jay’s encouragement we stretched the camp irrigation system to serve holes 10, 17, and 18. It was impressive! Holes 17 and 18 have consistently ranked as the best and most beautiful holes in Texas.
After creating these 3 holes, our camp irrigation was maxed out. Building a golf course required a first class designer and construction company. Having built the Austin Country Club with Pete Dye, I was knowledgeable of the undertaking and appreciated the funding and expertise that was required. Camp Olympia could not afford the development and maintenance.
3. So what did you do next?
The question that I asked before the undertaking: what is golf missing? There are great golf courses everywhere.
There are amateurs and pro tournaments everywhere, too. The only thing missing for golf was its participation in the Olympics (at the time golf was not a summer Olympic sport). There are many important attributes to the Olympics. The world comes together in peace to celebrate the universal human spirit, to share values and to realize hopes and dreams from every corner around the world.
When I played football for UT and Darrell Royal, I was an amateur athlete. My athletic scholarship paid for my college education. It was a privilege to earn my degree and play for my state, school, coach, teammates and fans. There is something wonderful about amateur athletes. Playing for the good of the game and to help others is inspiring.
Amateur golf is mostly played with a partner. Team sports build character and comradery. It is the only sport where the handicap system allows people with different ability to compete fairly.
Golf teaches values:
Integrity – golfers call penalties on themselves
perseverance – overcoming adverse bounces is a must for success
Respect – for teammates and competitors- there are rules and etiquette to follow
Creativity – there are many problems on the course and even more solutions
Dedication – practice makes perfect
Humility – golf has many humbling moments!
The Olympics spend billions to prepare a site with the stadiums and facilities to enable the competitions, the athletes and the fans. Camp Olympia already had the global village that could house and care for 440 people at a time. Camp has hosted campers and counselors from all around the world. Building the Whispering Pines Golf Club provided a worthy test of any golfer’s capabilities. It has remarkably beautiful flora and fauna as golfers venture through the East Texas piney woods. The natural hills, lakes and Caney Creek provide incredible shot making opportunities. The complexity of the bunkers and greens has provided a true challenge. Our Whispering Pines staff and course conditions have created an environment that has been rated the best golf experience in Texas for 11 years.
The Spirit International Amateur Championship has competitors from every continent that travel over one million miles to the WPGC and Camp Olympia. At Camp Olympia the competitors live together in cabins, eat together at the Chow Hall, have activities after golf together like soccer, boating, basketball, ping pong, and computers to stay up on school work or communicate with home and friends. Nightly activities include line dancing, karaoke night, a carnival and skits like Swan Lake. Their experience is enhanced by camp counselors, camp songs and recognition. The camp counselors are in charge of FUN! The great amateur golfers play in lots of golf tournaments. The Spirit International is their chance to combine the best international competition on earth with the best camp experience in Texas. Friendships are created for life which evolves on the professional and amateur golf tours for some and on the web for all!
4. Whispering Pines is located 80 miles north and slightly east of Houston. Let’s go into greater detail about the area and the decades you have spent there.
In 1963, my parents bought Lake Saron, a timber farm in Trinity County with 7 lakes and a beautiful lodge built by the Cameron Lumber Company in the 1930. I became very familiar with the natural beauty and potential of the East Texas Piney woods and water. The location is close to the population centers of Texas and within 150 miles of the Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio metro areas. It is an easy drive to get there from all directions!
In 1968, Chris Gilbert and I started Camp Olympia at Lake Saron. The woods, fields, and water at Lake Saron made it a wonderful setting. Chris’s dad was a home builder. He built 8 screened cabins, a bathroom, and a chow hall that also had a nurse’s station. We borrowed $35,000 from the First City Bank in Houston to fund the improvements. We mowed the fields for football, soccer and baseball. We swam and boated on the lakes. With an all-star array of guests, our camp program was great fun. Our first year attracted 89 campers and our second year we had 182! Camp Olympia has been growing ever since.
In 1970, the city of Houston funded the Trinity River Authority to construct of Lake Livingston, a 90,000 acre lake on the Trinity River, which is Texas’s most productive river system. The White Rock Creek area of Lake Livingston, about 3500 acres, is about 5 miles due south of Lake Saron, so I bought 250 acres of lake frontage from the Southland Paper Company. I employed Brown and Roots to improve the shoreline before the dam was completed and the lake was filled. Moving the Earth before it was water created the shoreline, islands and peninsulas that shaped holes 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. We finished planting the grass mix before the lakes filled, so the project created immense value in the shoreline. From 1970 to the WPGC opening in 2000, the forest grew many species of trees and wetland vegetation to create its unique golf holes. Those golf holes have been consistently ranked the best and beautiful in Texas! The natural site has been blessed with time, love, and tenderness.
5. Please describe the site’s allure, apart from Caney Creek and Lake Livingston.
The Whispering Pines Golf Club’s allure is an intimate experience with nature on a challenging, but playable, golf course. It is a special place to deepen friendships. Among the hundreds of golf experiences that I have enjoyed, Pine Valley, August National and Cypress Point are at the top of the list. They are great courses that are blessed with natural beauty and are not overcrowded with people. It is a privilege to be invited for an outing there. Like these classic golf courses, we have created an environment and experience that builds relationships and refreshes the soul. After the course was routed by timbering the property, the golf course screamed to be built. It was that good!
6. How did you go about selecting Chet Williams as the architect?
When we set out to interview for the course, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Fazio were too busy and passed; Reese Jones was interested and had built a classic links course at the Nantucket Golf Club, unfortunately, he butchered the redo of the Donald Ross course at the River Oaks Country Club. I built the Austin Country Club with Pete Dye and he managed me instead of vice versa. Pete did a wonderful piece of work but was experimenting with color and texture. Pete put centipede grasses on the slopes around the greens, which made it very difficult to chip with back spin. He promised that we would change the centipede grass to bermuda before he finished, but didn’t. Because of that experience, I didn’t give Pete a second chance.
Jack Nicklaus was building courses all over the world. Nicklaus Design offered 4 designers to interview. I picked Chet Williams. Chet had worked directly with Jack on many courses all over the world since 1988. He was experienced, capable and lived in Waco, not Florida, so it was an easy drive from WP. Chet was someone whom I could work with and trusted completely. The natural lay of the land provided great shot making and beauty; Chet provided a design that complimented the natural features. We worked closely together on the green complexes. Great courses all have great greens!
Not only has Chet designed a wonderful course, but he has been a faithful friend and confidant in the undertaking of our course. Chet was there for the development of the Needler, course rehab in the 20th year, and for every Spirit International touch up. It is a pleasure and privilege to count him as a friend.
7. Did you give him any marching orders?
I told Chet that the course should fit with the natural features and we should have great greens; that every hole should be unique. Chet used Nicklaus formula for the second shot- the closer you hit the ball near the hazards, the better the approach shot to the green.
Chet fulfilled those wishes and more. His bunkers were well placed and menacing. I should know, I’ve visited them all! His greens complimented the natural setting, shot making and afford many pin placements that offer a wide range of difficulty.
8. The club is closed through the hot humid summer months. Is that so optimal playing conditions are enjoyed whenever it is open?
The club is closed during the late summer, which is the growing season and the best time to work the grasses. It is also difficult to have a wonderful experience when it is Texas hot! We do offer iced mango towels which are a help on a hot day. President George W. Bush and I went through a dozen mango towels on one round together on a hot summer day!
9. What are your three favorite holes without water?
#2- the blind drive over a 50’ hill; then a second shot over an acre of waste bunkers; a green with 4 pin point positions, each has its own of character.
#4- the drive that must crest a hill that runs away; a bunker 60 yards in front of the green that optically looks like part of the green complex; a turtle back green that repels the ball in all directions with 4 interesting pin point positions.
#9- the finishing hole for the front nine doglegs around a sloping fairway that is well bunkered. The second shot is to a narrow undulating green that can be a 3 club difference.
#10- It is a beautiful view from its back porch of The Spirit Hall. Babs Lake only comes in play with a big slice. It is a challenging green complex. The drive must hug the yawning bunker on the left for a decent shot into the green’s right pin position!
10. What are your three favorite holes with water?
I love all my children! Water is the essence of life. Whispering Pines Golf Club is a great golf experience because of the lakes and creeks that present themselves on holes #1, 3, 5, 6, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. Eighteen is a great finishing hole – water off the tee box; water in front of a challenging green with a false front. The bailout for the second shot is subtle.
11. What might a guest miss after just one or two rounds?
I cannot speculate on what guests miss: Everybody is somebody at WP! The course rankings have consistently elevated WPGC up the ranks of the great golf experiences in the world. They see and experience more than they miss. The golf raters have established Whispering Pines reputation, we have never advertised. The course speaks for itself, though I do encourage everyone to enjoy this aerial tour of the course: http://www.whisperingpinesgolfclub.com/Whispering-Pines-Golf-Club-Aeri.html. Our Head Professional Chris Rowe does a great job narrating it.
12. Who joins?
We have 100 corporate members and 200 individuals who make a charitable contribution to the Spirit Golf Association (SGA). They are supporting a global amateur event like the Olympics. The excess contributions are awarded to health care and educations including the Baylor Teen Clinic, Immunization Partnership, and The Medical Bridges. In 2017, to help the 130,000 victims of Hurricane Harvey, we canceled The Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship to give funds to the Food Bank, the United Way, BCM Teen Clinic, Yellowstone and Kipp flood victims.
Members of the SGA have playing and staying privileges for them and their guests.
13. When did you have Chet Williams add the Needler nine? What role does it play and how it is different than the main 18?
It took a couple of years to design and permit the Needler and it opened in the spring, 2013 after taking over a year to build. The Needler is a shot makers dream. It was built for fun and challenge. There are five tee boxes on every hole but no tee markers. Play it from wherever you’d like – from your wedges down, you’ll use every club in your bag on the back tees. Great comradery and shot making provide a perfect ending to a day at Whispering Pines or a fun warm up for the championship course.
The Needler got its name from an unique golf outing in the 1950s.The original Needler Tournament was a golf group that my father began. Competitors could say anything, but you couldn’t touch a fellow competitor. Needles can be subtle or bold, but must be offered in good humor.
The Championship course was built for the best amateur golfers in the world. From 7500 yards to difficult pin positions, it is a worthy test for the best golfers on the planet. Its design with multiple tee boxes allow golfers of all capabilities to enjoy their rounds. If golfers can carry 90 yards in the air, then they can play the championship course. The slope is 152 so it helps all golfers’ handicap.
14. Let’s talk about the club structure at Whispering Pines. Tell us how the member’s annual dues benefit The Spirit Golf Association, a 501-C3?
WPGC has a non-exclusive lease with the SGA; Camp Olympia also has a lease for its junior golf program. For 18 years the SGA ran a First Tee program for the Houston Independent School District’s fifth graders who attended an outdoor education program at Camp Olympia.
The SGA receives annual membership contributions and each member receives rounds and privileges at WPGC. The value of their rounds is not tax deductible and the rest of the contribution is a charitable deduction. SGA member contributions are made to the SGA, a charitable organization that has 501-C-3 tax designation. The SGA and the WPGC also promotes amateur golf and has hosted AJGA tournaments, the Big 12 Conference Golf Championship and the Texas Amateur Championship for the Texas Golf Association.
15. What organizations have benefited from the monies raised by The Spirit Golf Association at Whispering Pines?
The organizations that have benefited from the SGA funds raised include: The Spirit International Amateur Championship, The Texas Golf Amateur, The Big 12 Conference, The BCM Teen Clinic, The Immunization Partnership, the Medical Bridges, The Food Bank in Houston, The United Way- Harvey Relief Fund, Kipp- Harvey Relief Fund and Yellowstone- Harvey Relief Fund.
16. Tell us more about The Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship. Who is invited?
The top 16 countries combined men and women’s scoring in the World Team Championship are invited to the Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship. 4 more countries are invited to assure global diversity and attract any great amateur golfers that have emerged. We urge the 20 countries invited to send their amateur champions. Indeed, the golf federations have sent great amateurs. Some of the Spirit amateurs who have turned pro (after competing in The Spirit International) have won over 650 professional events and 23 majors. The Spirit participants are indeed an elite group of golfers from all around the world.
Team: Mexico- Lorena Ochoa, Violeta Retamoza, Mauricio Mendez, Alberto Valenzuela
Men’s Team: Austria- Thomas Kogler, Martin Wiegele
Women’s Team: Mexico- Lorena Ochoa, Violeta Retamoza
Men’s Individual: Robert Hamilton, USA
Women’s Individual: Lorena Ochoa, Mexico
Team: USA- Paula Creamer, Jane Park, Mathew Rosenfeld, Brant Snedeker
Men’s Team: USA- Mathew Rosenfeld, Brant Snedeker
Women’s Team: USA- Paula Creamer, Jane Park,
Men’s Individual: Chinarat Padungsil, Thailand
Women’s Individual: Paula Creamer, USA
Team: England- Felicity Johnson, Sophie Walker, Oliver Fisher, Jamie Moul
Men’s Team: Germany- Martin Kaymer, Stefan Kirstein
Women’s Team: England- Felicity Johnson, Sophie Walker,
Men’s Individual: Stefan Kirstein, Germany
Women’s Individual: Pernilla Lindberg, Sweden
Team: England- Elizabeth Bennett, Naomi Edwards, Gary Boyd, Danny Willet
Men’s Team: England- Gary Boyd, Danny Willet
Women’s Team: Korea- Sei Young Kim, Soo Jim Yang
Men’s Individual: Danny Willett, England
Women’s Individual: Soo Jim Yang, Korea
Team: USA- Jennifer Johnson, Lexi Thompson, Jordan Spieth, Ben Martin
Men’s Team: Italy- Lorenzo Scotto, Filippo Zucchetti
Women’s Team: USA- Jennifer Johnson, Lexi Thompson
Men’s Individual: Bum Geun CHae, Korea
Women’s Individual: Lexi Thompson, USA
Team: USA- Austin Ernst, Emily Tubert, Kelly Kraft, Nathan Smith
Men’s Team: USA- Kelly Kraft, Nathan Smith
Women’s Team: Korea- Hyoo Joo Kim, Kyu Jung Baek
Men’s Individual: Kelly Kraft, USA; Thomas Pieters, Belgium; Carlos Ortiz, Mexico; Mackenzie Hughes, Canada; Ruan de Smidt, South Africq; Nathan Smith, USA
Women’s Individual: Victoria Tanco, Argentina
Team: USA- Ally McDonald, Ashlan Ramsey, Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Niebrugge
Men’s Team: USA- Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Niebrugge
Women’s Team: France- Mathilda Cappeliez, Eva Gilly
Men’s Individual: Julien Brun, France; Daniel Jennevret, Sweden; Jordan Niebrugge, USA; Toni Hakula, Finland; Scottie Scheffler, USA
Women’s Individual: Brooke Henderson, Canada
Team: USA- Philip Barabaree, Will Zalatoris, Hannah O’Sullivan, Mariel Galdiano
Men’s Team: USA- Philip Barabaree, Will Zalatoris
Women’s Team: Mexico- Maria Fassi, Ana Paula Valdes
Men’s Individual: Philip Barabaree, USA
Women’s Individual: Maria Fassi, Mexico
Spirit Charity Challenge
This inaugural event will feature 9 LPGA and 9 PGA TOUR players that have participated in The Spirit. They will return to Whispering Pines to play for a $100,000 contribution to the charity of their choice. Stacy Lewis and Sam Saunders are the 2019 Spirit Ambassadors. Some players that are subject to appear are Austin Ernst, C.T. Pan, Ben Martin, Bronte Law, Dylan Frittelli, Gaby Lopez, Jaclyn Lee, Julian Etulain, Kelly Kraft, Lexi Thompson, Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, Pernilla Lindberg and Roberto Diaz.
Hall of Fame Game
Members of baseball, basketball, business, entertainment, football, and golf will compete on The Needler for a $25,000 contribution to the charity of their choice. Some participants that are subject to appear are Clyde Drexler, Dan Pastorini, Don Evans, Ed Marinaro, Elvin Bethea, Hollis Stacy, Jan Stephenson, Jeff Bagwell, Kenny Houston, Larry Gatlin, Murry Bowden, Nolan Ryan, R.C. Slocum, Reid Ryan and Willie Alexander.
17. When will each be held this year?
Spirit Charity Challenge: October 6-7
The Spirit International: November 4-10
Hall of Fame Game: November 17-18
18. What have been a couple of your favorite moments in that event over the years?
My favorite moments from previous events include:
Walking the golf course with Jordan Spieth, Coach John Fields and his wife Pearl
Lexi Thompson, 14, she was something to behold! She out drove everyone. After watching her, I wanted to swing like a girl!
Phillip Barbaree had 19 birdies
Lorena Ochoa sank every putt that was needed
USA Team member Nathan Smith ‘s almost hole in one on 14.
I enjoy getting personally acquainted with the team captains for every country of the world. We have a few that are Spirit International Members.
Paula Creamer was a winner as Spirit Player and as a Team Captain.
Charlie Epps brought the master trophy that Angel Cabrera won in 2009 to the opening program. I wish you could have seen the sparkle in our amateur golfers eyes as they envied that trophy and accomplishment.
David Fay, the 2011 USA Team Captain, led the USGA for decades and is the Spirit of the game. What a respected leader!
The TX golf Am volunteers make the event. There are too many volunteers to name, but their presence and professionalism makes the Spirit real!
Life at Camp is an absolute delight to watch the interaction. Players are shy the first night as the Spirit competition gets settled, but they are great friends by the carnival after karaoke, line dancing and all the fun during the week.
At the carnival, Lorena Ochoa, the Mexican team captain, put on the Sumo Wrestling suit and whipped her men’s team. Incredible!
The counselors were gentle to my wife, Barbara, and I when we rode the mechanical bull, but many riders had a rough ride! “Never a bull that hasn’t been rode, never a rider that hasn’t been thrown!”
The Global Village at Camp Olympia has many great moments during each Spirit. Ben Jackson’s extraordinary magic tricks help all Spirit participants define the “magic of life!”
19. The course opened in 2000 and shuts for renovation this December. What are you looking to accomplish?
Every golf club that maintains excellence has to rehab and update their course every 20 years. The WPGC is no exception. We will improve the irrigation with heads that have remote control; the drainage wherever it should be improved; change the fairway and rough grass to zoysia so we can play through the winter; change the greens from Champions to the new strain of TifEagle; improve the cart paths; and redo the bunkers.
While we are shut down for the rehab, we hope to build more cottages for our members use during their golf outing. Our current cottages are in strong demand, so adding capacity will benefit members and their guests.
20. Thank you for being such a great friend to amateur golf! Any last thoughts?
Golf is a game that teaches character, integrity, perseverance, credibility, dedication, patience, etiquette, respect, and love of nature. It is little wonder that golf provides more charitable contributions than any other sport. Whispering Pines and the SGA is unique. No other sport or club has attracted 300 philanthropist that their share values, vision, and funding to help humanity.
Amateur golf is the foundation of the game. Amateurs are the audiences for the pros; amateurs buy the merchandise; amateurs volunteer their time in golf associations all over our country and world to honor golf’s finest traditions and make the game playable and available for everyone.
The golf pros are big business; amateurs play for the love of this great game!
GolfClubAtlas thanks photographer Hugh Hargrave for the use of his photographs throughout this Feature Interview.