The Team from South Africa tees of the gorgeous 10th hole
at Whispering Pines in the 2021 Spirit Country Sponsor event
2021 will be marked as the year of team golf. The Ryder Cup and Curtis Cup landed on the odd year due to COVID postponement. The Solheim Cup and Walker Cup were played on their regularly scheduled dates.
With this flood of team events, Americans might even have a grasp on the difference between the foursomes and four-ball formats for the first time. Golf also had a place in the Tokyo Olympics. However while players competed under their nations’ flags, there was no team aspect. Many believed it was a perfect opportunity to have a mixed-team event that would drum up the patriotic, team spirit we see in some of our favorite Olympic events.
A fantastic model for Olympic golf can be found at The Spirit International Amateur Golf Tournament, which will be played north of Houston, Texas at Whispering Pines from Nov. 4-6. This event demonstrates exactly what an Olympics team-golf competition can look like. Four-person teams from 20 different countries will play in a 54-hole tournament that actually consists of five concurrent events all at once - international team, men’s team and women’s team, and men’s and women’s individual stroke play competitions.
It all started with a Cotton-bowl winning Texas Longhorn named Corby Robertson and his love of summer camp back in the 1970s.
Robertson is a successful Texas-based businessman who has spent his career in the natural resources industry with a passion for athletics. Once an All-American on the University of Texas football team, he never turned professional, “those guys all made about $25,000 and I thought I could do much better” he told Golkweek’s Tim Schmitt.
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Robertson 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.
Corby Robertson at the 2021 Spirit
Robertson didn’t start Camp Olympia with the long-term idea of running a golf event played by future Masters champions like Jordan Spieth and Danny Willett or 27-time LPGA Tour winner Lorena Ochoa. In fact, Spirit alumni have won on all the major tours worldwide.
Instead, Robertson wanted to provide a space for teens to grow and bond. The land is beautiful and serene, the perfect place for young people to recenter and build camaraderie. When a beetle infestation destroyed trees on the property, clearing some of the land, the game of “olf” was born. Robertson describes it as, “golf without the greens.” Campers would hit golf balls at a plateau with a washtub in the middle. “You make more holes-in-one and you don’t ever miss three-foot putts,” Robertson said.
Watching the campers enjoy this novel version “olf” inspired Robertson to make the leap and stake out a few holes for a golf course. By the late 1990s it was clear to Robertson that the land was primed for a championship golf course. He enlisted Chet Williams of Nicklaus Design to design the best course in Texas; Whispering Pines was born to rave reviews in 2000.
With an elite course and the desire to help young people grow and prosper, Robertson founded the Spirit International Amateur in 2001, an event that combines all the things he loves about amateur golf - it opens relationships among players worldwide and leaves a charitable mark, both locally and internationally. It’s a biennial two-player team competition; this year’s field features two men and two women from each of 20 countries spanning five continents.
“We say to the other countries, ‘Send us your best golfers,’” Robertson said. “And frankly, they’ve done it for the most part.”
“You could tell as amateurs that they all had something special, but notwithstanding, 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 experience the camp lifestyle. They stay at Camp Olympia, connecting them to the campers of the past who enjoyed “olf” all those years ago.
During the week of the Spirit, Camp Olympia becomes a sort of Olympic Village. It’s the place where players bond.
Often, elite amateurs like those selected for the Spirit choose events that can boost their world ranking. But rounds played at the Spirit don’t count toward their ranking because teammates are able to consult each other throughout the round. 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. It might even encourage other tours or the Olympics to try a similar format. 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.
-- Note: Former AG writer Julie Williams (now with Golfweek) contributed to this story.
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
View Complete Tournament Information