Robertson (center) with the 2015 U.S. Spirit team (Spirit photo)
A lifelong amateur’s view of the game is just different. He sees it for the camaraderie as much as the competition, and often as a vehicle to achieve bigger things, like giving back.
Corby Robertson fits that mold.
Robertson is a successful Texas-based businessman who has spent his career in the natural resources industry. He is also a passionate athlete. Once an All-American on the University of Texas football team, though never a professional, he has an obvious passion for amateur athletics. He learned to play golf growing up at River Oaks Country Club in Houston.
“I have never been anything other than an amateur golfer but I wormed my way down to a 4 handicap, and at 71, I wormed my way back up to about an 11,” he jokes.
Robertson founded the Spirit International Amateur in 2001, an event that combines all the things he loves about amateur golf as it opens relationships among players worldwide and leaves a charitable mark, both locally and internationally. It’s a biennial two-player team competition that features two men and two women from each of 20 countries that span six continents. It's the must-play international event of the odd year.
The Spirit will return to the competition calendar next year for the first time since 2015. Effects from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 led Robertson and his team to postpone the event and put the priority on a tragedy that hit close to home. In the greater Houston area, roughly 90 miles south of Whispering Pines, 130,000 homes flooded. The Spirit Golf Association sent $300,000 to affected individuals through program like the United Way Relief Fund.
It was an act that aligned perfectly with the Spirit Golf Association’s larger mission: to raise money for charity while promoting the global goodwill of amateur golf.
With the tournament back on the books, Robertson was asked for a vision of what the Spirit could look like 50 years down the road. He chuckled, preferring to focus on what it will look like next fall. Chief in his vision is strength of field.
“We say to the other countries, ‘Send us your best golfers,’” Robertson said. “And frankly, they’ve done it for the most part.”
It’s what allowed the past participants list to become so prestigious – from Masters champions Jordan Spieth and Danny Willett to LPGA Hall of Famer Lorena Ochoa to even four-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Nathan Smith. Spirit alumni have won on all the major tours worldwide.
“You could tell as amateurs that they all had something special, but not withstanding, they were all sharing an experience,” Robertson said. “It wasn’t just another tournament. They’re playing a tournament somewhere every week, but this is different.”
For one thing, players stay at Camp Olympia, a nearby summer camp venue on Lake Livingston. Robertson has spoken passionately about his summer-camp experience as a child, and created the long-running camp together with Longhorn teammate Chris Gilbert.
During Spirit week, it becomes a sort of Olympic Village. It’s the place where players bond.
Often, elite amateurs like those selected for the Spirit live and die by their world ranking. But rounds played at the Spirit don’t even count toward it since teammates are able to consult each other throughout the round. Individual honors go to the players who make the most birdies and eagles.
“They fire aware at the pins because they have a partner,” Robertson said. Past participants haven’t seemed to mind that it’s a non-ranking event.
The venue, Whispering Pines Golf Club, has been named the Dallas Morning News’
top course in Texas 10 times. In 2017, it occupied the No. 55 spot on Golf Digest’s list of top 100 golf courses in America. There’s even a short course on the Whispering Pines property, the Needler, that reflects a trend in today’s game.
For now, Whispering Pines is the home of the Spirit. Robertson doesn’t have much desire to host a PGA Tour event there and says that his oasis in remote Trinity, Texas isn’t built for it.
In past years, Whispering Pines has hosted events like the Big 12 Championship and the Texas Amateur, and Robertson wouldn’t be opposed to opening the doors to a USGA amateur championship, a Walker Cup or perhaps even a Solheim Cup. He spoke, even, of the possibility of gathering the Spirit alumni for a reunion.
There’s history in Robertson’s event and it will only deepen as the Spirit continues. Still, in his endearing Texas drawl, Robertson always goes back to the outreach. It takes him several minutes to list the people and the causes, like immunization and teen health, for which the Spirit Golf Association has made a difference.
“Our mission is to use golf to bring the world closer together and raise money for charities,” he said. “Bringing the world closer together, doing something like the Olympics for golf, is in itself a charity and one that is a very noble and worthwhile enterprise.”
It will be Robertson’s legacy in this game.
ABOUT THE The Spirit International Amateur
The Spirit International Amateur Golf
Championship is world class golf event
played every other year. It features the
world’s best amateur men and amateur
women golfers as they represent their
respective country in team and individual
competitions. The 96 participants enjoy an
Olympic-like experience from the
Opening/Closing Ceremonies, international
village and competing for gold medals.
The World Health & Golf Association and
Texas Golf Association invite 24 countries
from six continents to participate. Established
in 2001, The Spirit is a biennial event that
alternates tournament years with the World
Amateur Team Championships.
Part of the uniqueness of the Spirit International are
the five simultaneous competitions:
Combined International Championship, Men’s Team
Championship, Women’s Team
Championship, Men’s Individual and Women’s
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