It began as a struggle between man and beetle. The man was Corby Robertson, Jr., chairman and CEO of Houston-based Natural Resource Partners L.P., a company that manages 26 portfolio companies and controls 5 percent of the coal in the U.S. The beetle was the Pine Bark Beetle, a woodboring pest of the subfamily Scolytinae.
"In east Texas," Robertson explains, "any place you don't mow grows trees." That includes the 660-acre timber plantation he bought three decades ago, a lakeside tract near the drowsy town of Trinity, an hour north of Houston. "I never harvested it," he says, "and the forest became very mature. Then the pine bark beetle started eating my trees." And since the only remedy for bark beetles is the axe, Robertson ordered his staff to start cutting. He had them topple trees and bulldoze narrow swaths, selectively cutting the surrounding forest. He dozed up soil and sand at attractive intervals, smoothing them with a chain drag. He planted the cleared areas with a drought-resistant turfgrass. It took about a year.
"We invented a game we called 'Olf,'" Robertson continues. "We used a washtub for a hole instead of a rabbit hole." And here he smiles. "I tell you, it's a lot easier to hit a washtub. But then we made a mistake. We invited Jay out to look at it."
"Jay" would be the late Junius Joseph Hebert, winner of the 1960 PGA Championship. Hebert examined the rolling terrain, the sparkling lake, the marshes, and he said, "This a wonderful place. You ought to build some real golf holes."
That was roughly two decades ago. Today, with an assist from Nicklaus Golf Design's Chet Williams, Robertson's homemade course is -- in a word -- fabulous. Named the No. 1 course in Texas by a statewide panel for the past five years, Whispering Pines is closing in on Fort Worth's Colonial Country Club, which held the top spot from 1989-95. The same panel of 120 experts, assembled by the Dallas Morning News, recently voted six of Whispering Pines' holes onto its list of "Texas' Best 18 Holes," including the course's entire closing stretch, 14 through 18. If you live someplace other than Texas, Whispering Pines is the best course you've never heard of.
But you will hear of it. Robertson, a former All-America linebacker at the University of Texas and grandson of the legendary oilman Hugh Roy Cullen, built his course as a permanent venue for another of his dreams, The Spirit International Amateur Golf Championship. The Spirit, which debuted in 2001, is a biennial competition for two-man and two-woman teams representing 20 countries. Won by the United States in 2009, The Spirit has showcased the likes of Rickie Fowler, Martin Kaymer, and Lorena Ochoa.
You will also hear of Whispering Pines because of its unusual corporate structure. Unlike most private clubs, which charge an initiation fee and monthly dues, Whispering Pines is owned and operated by another Robertson brainchild, the nonprofit World Health & Golf Association. "Members" play the course in proportion to their donations to the WHGA, which helps fund child-immunization and teen health programs, among other charities.
"We're a secondary, not a primary club, so a member might only play here two or three times a year," says Eric Fredricksen, the association's executive director and former tournament director of the Shell Houston Open. "But we have about a 95 percent renewal rate, which speaks volumes about the quality of the golf experience." On average, Whispering Pines logs only 5,000 rounds per year, distributed over two 15-week seasons. The club closes summer and winter, when the weather in East Texas can be, shall we say, less than ideal.
You will not hear about Whispering Pines from a high-priced P.R. firm or by direct mail. ("We're not selling homes or property," Fredricksen says.) And you certainly won't see the founder and celebrities walking its fairways on the Golf Channel, a la Donald Trump. "If Corby stepped into the golf shop right now, nobody would guess that he owns the place," says head professional Chris Rowe. "That's how he is."
Robertson is no less laid back at his company's headquarters, which occupy the entire 36th floor of a downtown Houston office tower. But visitors are met with a strong sense of style, from the terracotta warrior that greets you at reception to the antiques and Persian rugs in the furnished corridors. "My wife, Barbara, is the decorator," Robertson says, stepping into his moderately sized corner office. "But she didn't decorate my messy desk. Don't give her credit for that."
Whispering Pines, he concedes, is a product of serendipity, an unforeseeable consequence of his having attended summer camp as a youngster. "I went to Camp Longhorn," he recalls, "and I earned enough merits to buy a single-shot, bolt-action .22. I was very proud of that achievement, and I really liked the camaraderie of camp life." He liked it so much that in 1968, while he was still pummeling opposition ballcarriers for Texas, he teamed up with his roommate and future College Football Hall of Fame running back Chris Gilbert to make use of 1,800 acres and an old hunting lodge of his family's on a chain of lakes constructed by the WPA in the 1930s.
That property, five miles from its present site on Lake Livingston, became Camp Olympia -- a renowned summer camp for boys and girls, ages 7-16. The camp now operates 360 days a year, introducing roughly 5,000 Houston fifth graders annually to more than 40 outdoor activities. A thousand of those kids take part in Camp Olympia's 20-week First Tee programs at adjoining Whispering Pines. "Forty-two years later," Robertson says, "we're still loving every minute of it."
It was in year two that golf came to Camp Olympia in the form of a threegreen, nine-fairway course built by Robertson's father and veteran PGA pro Jackson Bradley. ("The greens stimped at about 2," Robertson recalls.) Two decades passed before Robertson had to square off with the pine bark beetles. A self-described "sporadic golfer," he had no more design experience than his dad, but he had learned a thing or two playing roughly half the courses in the Top 100. "My philosophy was to follow the natural features," he says, sounding like every big-name course plower since Old Tom Morris.
Robertson does not claim design credit for Whispering Pines, although the routing is his. He interviewed several prominent architects before hiring Nicklaus Design's Williams, in 1998, to stretch the championship length to 7,480 yards, build Tour-quality green complexes and add refinements like the sprawling bunker field on the par-5 second hole. "Chet did a lovely piece of work there, digging a big hole for a waste area," Robertson says. "It's one of the more beautiful holes in Texas."
Getting the world to recognize that fact may take a while, thanks to Whispering Pines' rural address. Even Rowe, who spent 10 years as an assistant pro at Colonial, had his doubts when he first drove through sun-baked Trinity in August 2005 to interview for the head pro position. "But then you see the course. Wow! Now I wouldn't trade jobs with anyone," he says. "It's like being at Pine Valley in the 1930s."
Others suspect Robertson is emulating Augusta National. There's no Magnolia Lane at Whispering Pines, but the entrance road takes arriving golfers on a scenic loop through the woods, around a cove and past a cluster of four-bedroom cottages reminiscent of Augusta's famous "cabins." Barbara Robertson, who designed the clubhouse interior and decorated each themed bedroom, has filled the spaces with masculine art and tchotchkes. In further homage to green-jacket land, Corby Robertson has begun work on a par-3 course. "When I first joined, I thought the course and the club were as good as they could get," says Houston attorney Dan Spain. "But every season they find ways to improve."
Robertson smiles at that kind of talk, but deflects the praise. "Give the credit to Caney Creek and Mother Nature," he says. "I just had the good sense not to mess it up."