Whispering Pines is one of the best courses in Texas … so why haven’t you heard of it?

April 19, 2011

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

“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.”