FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
School is in session (for amateurs and aspiring pros) at the Sandbelt Invitational
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
The first tee at Kingston Heath is one of the most majestic spots in golf, with an endless expanse of closely mown turf stretching toward the horizon. The teeing area is so hard against the pro shop it feels like you might break the glass on your backswing. As the second annual Sandbelt Invitational commenced at 8 a.m. on Monday, the faces in the shop window were more expectant than usual: One of their own, Caleb Bovalina, was playing in the first group out, alongside Cam Davis (above), who starred in the recent Presidents Cup. Bovalina, 23, is finishing up “uni,” and to help make ends meet, for 20 hours a week he dons a tie to work in the Kingston Heath pro shop. But his dream is to be the next Cam Davis, if not Cam Smith, and the Sandbelt has become a critical part of his education. Last year Bovalina competed in the inaugural playing of this charming tournament that brings together pros young and old alongside male and female amateurs; Bovalina made a careful study of playing partner Jed Morgan.
“Chasing those guys, you want to become them someday,” Bovalina says. “Someone like Jed, how has he transformed from me a few years ago? It’s not only how he reasons his way around the course, it’s also what he does off the course. We can all hit it, we can all swing it. I’m looking for that little extra 1 percent he does to make himself as good as he can be.”
Bovalina’s education continued as he got an up-close look at Davis’ 65, which gave him the first-round lead, two strokes ahead of Tom Power Horan, who has resurrected his career after spending the last three years working as a caddie to help pay his sister’s medical bills as she battled cancer (successfully!). Young amateur Jye Pickin is in third place after a 68.
Davis, a 27-year-old Aussie, has been a mainstay on the PGA Tour since 2018 and last year won the Rocket Mortgage Classic. The assistant captain who looked after him at the Presidents Cup was Geoff Ogilvy, the co-founder of the Sandbelt Invitational. After they bonded during the Internationals’ narrow loss, Davis promised Ogilvy he would tee it up at the Invitational, a chance to give back to a game that has given him so much. “I love the idea of men, women and amateurs all playing together,” Davis says. “I would have loved something like this growing up. I would have loved the early exposure to what tour golf is like: the decision-making, the caddieing, all that. Hopefully I can help out a couple of guys, give them a few insights.”
That sense of community informed the festive feeling in the air for the first round. “It’s really exciting, really cool,” said John Lyras. “Nothing better than Kingston Heath early on a Monday morning.”
Indeed, the Heath is one of the best championship tests on the planet, even though it lacks the rollicking terrain of its more celebrated neighbor, Royal Melbourne. “It’s fascinating golf—strategic, interesting,” says tournament director Mike Clayton. The course was instrumental in turning the Sandbelt into an acclaimed destination after many courses had lost their architectural roots. “Kingston Heath turned golf around in this city,” Clayton says. The course opened for play in 1925, designed by Dan Soutar to be a monster that stood the test of time. It originally played as a 6,800-yard par-82! A year later, Alister MacKenzie redid the bunkering and transformed the 15th hole into a dastardly and iconic par 3. Over time, bunkers were filled in and invasive trees were allowed to crowd the playing corridors. In the early ’80s, a new superintendent, Greame Grant, pored over old photos and returned the course to its former glory. Says Clayton, “He brought back the great MacKenzie bunkering, chopped down trees, changed the grasses and rebuilt the greens, and in doing so showed other clubs how to get the courses back to the way they were originally. It was the first step in the restoration of the Sand Belt.”
Showing off these spectacular courses is one of the missions of the tournament. The second round will be played at Royal, as the locals call it, followed by visits to Yarra Yarra and Peninsula Kingswood. “For a lot of the players these are the four best courses they’ll play all year, and you can throw Augusta National in there,” Clayton woofs.
The competitors love the interpersonal dimension as much as the playing fields. Teenager Niall Shiels Donegan is one of the few non-Australians in the field. Born in Glasgow, he grew up in Northern California and his golfing education has been informed by his father, Lawrence, who is now the editor of the golf literary journal McKellar Magazine. After shooting 81 in the opening round on a firm, fiery test, Donegan was hoping to get a bunker lesson from Peter Fowler, 63, who counts 20 worldwide wins in his well-traveled career. Why Fowler (above)? Reports young Donegan, “Seve said [Fowler] was the only guy on Tour who had a better short game.”
It’s not only the kids who are sponges this week. “I’ve been on tour 16 years and I’m still learning,” says Andrew Martin. “You’re learning every round, aren’t you?”