Sandbelt Invitational – Reflections from afar.

By Paul Prendergast.

The Format.

From all reporting that was able to be shared from within the event, the mixture of youth and experience, amateur and professional, across four brilliant courses was a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to watch for those able to be present on any given day.

The fact we have male and female players in the same field is a gratifyingly less unique occurrence these days, thanks to Australian event promoters taking a lead with the mixed field Victorian Opens and TPS events of the past few years. Not to mention the Geoff Ogilvy Foundation-inspired pro-ams and competitive ‘get togethers’ that Ogilvy himself has facilitated to provide opportunities for younger players to play alongside others with greater experience.

‘Try to play with people who are better than you’ was a tip from a former club champion that I vividly recall from my formative years and is advice that is at the heart of the Foundation’s efforts.         

Also fantastic and these days unique was the ability for spectators to wander up close to see and hear how these players go about their work. Seeing is one thing but it’s important to emphasise ‘hearing’ as a crucial learning experience, not only for the emerging players but anyone watching on with an interest in improving their game.

Listening in to how players discuss the shots they’re about to play, why they’re playing them, all the environmental factors being computed in their decision making processes. Hearing the sound of a ball compressed off the tee by a Jordan Zunic, Bryden Macpherson or Stephanie Bunque, the sound of pitch shots being clipped (correctly or otherwise) from closely mown turf and how the ball subsequently reacts on firm, fast greens.

These are the intangibles the Sandbelt Invitational setup facilitated and that are often missed from behind the ropes and certainly watching coverage on TV.

With thanks to Lucas and Su.

Granted, these were home games for the two Victorians but the fact of the matter is, they willingly committed to an event only days before Christmas when most players with the kind of Tour schedules these two have ‘endured’ as LPGA and in Herbert’s case, DP World and now PGA TOUR members, have stashed the clubs for a break. 

Both have criss-crossed the globe, been quarantined and had more nasal swabs in the past 12 months than potentially the rest of the field combined. They could be excused if rechargng the batteries was their foremost thought but, there they were, fully embracing relatively new responsibilities as torch bearers for the next gen.

That neither of them would win the event is immaterial.

Reflecting on Herbert’s year alone, he added to his trophy cabinet at the Irish Open and pursued his aspirations to play in major championships, WGC events and an ultimate goal of attaining full-time PGA TOUR status. He also played in the Korn Ferry Tour finals to successfully clinch a main Tour card before securing his future in the U.S. with victory at the Bermuda Championship in October.

After all of the above, the first thing Herbert (pictured above with young Victorian Keeley Marx. Photo: Ross Flannigan) did after the Sandbelt Invitational was launched was to reach out to ask if he could peg it up. Music to the ears of Geoff Ogilvy and Mike Clayton no doubt. Having a current title holder from the two biggest men’s Tours in the field, showing 13-year olds with stars in their eyes how it’s done, was likely beyond anything they’d envisaged was possible for this inaugural staging. 

The now world No. 41’s standing in the game is a far cry from the guy who readily admitted in a post round interview at the 2017 Australian Open that up until his previous week’s podium finish at the NSW Open, his projected travel expenses for the remainder of the Australian season were outstripping his bank balance.

The upward spiral in his career trajectory from that point alone is one for young aspirants to appreciate and understand – they too might not be that far away if desire, a willingness to work to maximise your talents and enormous dollops of self-belief can align themselves. Cameron Smith was another who made similar strides from 2014 -18 as Herbert has made these past few years.

The fact that Herbert will be packing the bags and heading off for his first start at the winners-only Tournament of Champions event in Hawaii – an event won in consecutive years by Ogilvy himself in 2009-10 – not long after New Year’s celebrations have died down, only adds to the kudos that should be extended to him for supporting this event.   

The Courses.

The members and governing bodies at Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Yarra Yarra and Peninsula Kingswood need to be credited for leaping at the opportunity to support this concept and by all accounts, expressing a desire to continue doing so long into the future. 

Reflecting for even a short period of time on the courses on display for this inaugural staging leads inevitably to thoughts of the quality of those on the Sandbelt that weren’t.  Consider the list:

Royal Melbourne East, Victoria, Metropolitan, Commonwealth, Woodlands, Huntingdale, Peninsula Kingswood North.

There’s no need to wax lyrically about any of the above. The names speak for themselves but to say the future for this event is bright, from an availability of quality golf courses perspective, would be an understatement of the greatest magnitude.

Last but not least, the winner(s)…and there are plenty.

That only five players were able to better par over 72 holes provides an insight into the difficulties posed by a group of world class golf courses, created and heavily influenced over time by the talents of course design ‘royalty’ in Mackenzie, Soutar, Morcom, Russell, Clayton, Ogilvy Cocking Mead and Doak.       

Brady Watt’s 10-under par winning total to take the title by six strokes over Jed Morgan was astounding and hopefully, a catalyst for greater things in his career. Like Horton Smith who won the original Masters Tournament as it was to become, Watt will be invited back to play the SI in perpetuity.

The tournament hosts would be no doubt be smiling on the inside and out at the diversity of players that rounded out the top 10 alone behind Watt. Names that included experienced campaigner and ‘PK’ member Marcus Fraser, a familiar name in Jordan Zunic and a gaggle of those becoming more familiar led by Matias Sanchez, Will Heffernan, John Lyras (who shot a tournament low 64 on day three), low female professional Grace Kim and low amateur male, Jye Pickin.

To conclude, while the event had considerable ‘feel good’ status with its small field and relaxed vibe, it’s difficult in the days since the event’s culmination to quantify the considerable amount of ‘actual’ good the younger players derived from the staging of the Sandbelt Invitational.  

The experience gained will hopefully be far more valuable to them over time than any point in time prize money and ranking point accumulation. For many, new contacts were made and relationships forged with players who have ‘been there and done that’, honing their craft over more years than they’ve celebrated birthdays.

There’s a finite limit to how much you glean from Googling and if the history of the game is any guide, these personal relationships can be counted on in the future when advice and guidance is required.

A willingness to help out others is one of the key attributes that makes our game great, even if it’s for a person you’re likely to be competing with all your might against the following day. Those behind the Sandbelt Invitational understand this implicitly and through their actions, are ensuring that this tradition is being maintained.  

Roll on 2022.

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