By Michael Davis

JUST when we thought big tournament golf was done and dusted in Australia, two of Melbourne’s biggest golf names have put their heads together and come up with an innovative event which may help fill the void a little.

The 2006 US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy and former European Tour player Mike Clayton will stage the inaugural Sandbelt Invitational from December 20-23 this year. 

Four of Melbourne’s world-famous collection of courses – Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath, Peninsula Kingswood and Yarra Yarra – will host one round each in a 72-hole event with a 60-strong mixture of male and female pros and amateurs. It will be a relatively low-key start to what both men hope will evolve into one of Australia’s biggest tournaments.

Royal Melbourne Golf Club is one of the venues for the Sandbelt Invitational.

The potential is obvious but the principle behind it very different in a professional golf world typically driven only by financial matters. Ogilvy’s foundation is putting up a $50,000 purse. He hopes other sponsors will be in place. But for now, the motivation is more altruistic than economic.

“’Clayts’ (Clayton) has to take most of the credit for the idea,” Ogilvy said.

“A couple of months ago we heard that the Australian Open was unlikely to happen, at which point Mike decided we had to have something in its place.

“We’ve been doing a few little things over the past few months, one-day 18-hole events that gave promising youngsters opportunities to play some competitive golf. So he (Clayton) called a few clubs in Melbourne to see if we could expand that to a four-day deal.”

It didn’t take long. 

Ogilvy said the reaction was “unbelievable.” Royal Melbourne was in straight away. Peninsula Kingswood said ‘yes’ within 30 seconds. Yarra Yarra and Kingston Heath quickly followed suit.

“Once we had the clubs involved, we sat down and thought about the field,” Ogilvy said. 

“The actual breakdown isn’t too clear right now because of COVID travel restrictions, so we’ll have to see how that pans out. But we’ll have the best field we can get, men and women, professionals and amateurs.”

Clayton said: “I want to make it clear the Sandbelt Invitational is not going to be like a ‘normal’ event. It’s not going to be on television. 

“There won’t be too many spectators. There won’t be any roped-off fairways or scoreboards. It’s all about getting the best players we can find competing with each other again. But the real stars of the show will be the courses. It’s not an event built around star names, which has been the norm down here (in Australia) for a few years.”

It seems unlikely that the leading Australians on the PGA Tour – Marc Leishman, Cam Smith, and Adam Scott – will be able to tee-up this year. But the PGA Tour’s most recent Australian winner, Lucas Herbert, is understood to be keen to tee it up. The reaction from Ogilvy and Clayton’s fellow pros has been positive.

The Sandbelt Invitational will offer exemptions into both the Vic Open (a mixed-event sanctioned by the European Tour and the LPGA) and, for the men, the Australian PGA Championship. So players will have plenty to play for.

“I really hope this will expand every year, to the point where it becomes a really big and important event,” Clayton said.

“But we don’t need a huge purse at this stage. That only raises expectations, ones we can’t meet because of all the travel restrictions in place. 

“Players from Western Australia, for example, can’t come to Melbourne right now. So the money doesn’t really matter that much.

“Our event is different. We don’t have to deal with sponsors or television. We have no expectations. All we’re trying to do this year is run an ‘amateur’ tournament with good players on great courses. And we’ll see how it goes.” 

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