TRINITY, TEXAS | On the global amateur golf landscape, The Spirit International Amateur Championship is a curiosity.
It is an 80-person, 20-nation golf tournament that not many people have ever heard of. It is a best-ball event, with five different competitions taking place simultaneously. It is a team event with a field comprised of men and women. And it is played late in the year in a remote part of rural Texas.
All that notwithstanding, it is a fascinating event. And it is a very good one.
Last week was the sixth playing of The Spirit at Whispering Pines GC, a club founded by Corbin Robertson Jr., some 88 miles north of Houston in Trinity, Tex. The event is contested every other year, alternating with the World Amateur Team Championships.
It has all the trappings of a big time amateur golf championship. Bagpipes summon the players to the first tee as the day begins. There are walking officials with each group, and each player has an adult caddie. Rules and course setup were ably handled by the Texas State Golf Association. The volunteer base, incredibly friendly and helpful, appears big enough to support a tournament two or three times the size of The Spirit. There is real-time scoring, a video webcast, and Peter Kessler did his “Making the Turn” Sirius/XM radio show live from the tournament all week long.
The 2011 version featured participants representing six continents. The teams are invited based on the combined results from the most recent WATC. All of the usual suspects were on hand save Scotland. Both Japan and China made their debuts this year. Teams were comprised of national amateur champions and top-ranked players, as selected by their federations.
The format is four-ball stroke play and each team is comprised of two men and two women. The men’s and women’s four-ball score is combined for the International Team overall title. There is also a separate men’s team, women’s team, men’s individual and women’s individual competition. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded for each competition.
The Spirit is the vision of Robertson, known to all simply as Corby. When asked, Robertson will tell you he is in the “energy” business, which in Texas means oil. He is a third generation energy baron, the grandson of legendary Texas wildcatter Hugh Roy Cullen. A lifelong single-digit golfer, Robertson was an All-American linebacker at the University of Texas in the late 1960s. And it was while he was still in college that he established Camp Olympia, which is central to the golf tournament.
Camp Olympia, which borders the golf course, is the quintessential American summer camp. It attracts youngsters age 7-16, and is thought to be one of the premiere summer camps in America. And while it offers all that one would want from such an experience, it also delivers a subliminal message, one that encourages kids to grow in mind, body and spirit.
This is best evidenced by the numerous signposts scattered around the camp, exhorting kids to aspire to leadership in their communities. This is very important to Robertson, further evidenced by the fact that Camp Olympia hosts a 20-week First Tee program.
For the week of the Spirit, Camp Olympia is turned into an Olympic-style village, with all of the players housed in cottages. The Olympics ethos is clearly woven into the fabric of the tournament. The week begins with an Olympic-style opening ceremony and team procession, and it closes with a medal ceremony to honor the competitors. At Camp Olympia, pins were exchanged, life stories shared, and friendships were forged at picnic tables. Robertson is a believer in the “old” Olympic spirit, before geopolitics, commercialism, and professionalism took over. He believes that sport can advance mankind and The Spirit is his effort to contribute.
Although off the radar screen of the global game, several brand name players have a Spirit appearance on their résumé. A young Lorena Ochoa led Mexico to the team championship in the inaugural event in 2001, and Paula Creamer did the same for the American team two years later. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and worldwide standouts like Martin Kaymer, Jason Day, the brothers Molinari (Edoardo and Francesco) and Rickie Fowler have all played The Spirit.
The Spirit International is what it is, very comfortable in its own skin. While Robertson would like much more global recognition and exposure, he isn’t going to compromise the things that make the tournament different and special. It is going to stay in a remote location, it is going to remain biennial, it is going to remain a four-ball event, and it is going to focus on nations where the game has developed and elite players are available. The agenda, if there is one, is to use the game to create more global goodwill.
Robertson believes that his tournament is the closest thing in golf to the Olympics. When you see a boy from one corner of the globe hugging a girl from the opposite corner at the closing ceremony, just days after they met for the first time, it is difficult to disagree with him.