Sandbelt Invitational Day 3
Moving day at Yarra Yarra produces plenty of fireworks
By Alan Shipnuck
After battling the wind on two of the most exacting courses on the planet—Kingston Heath and Royal Melbourne—the competitors at the Sandbelt Invitational received an early Christmas present for the third round: a chance to unwrap Yarra Yarra Golf Club, a slightly more user-friendly course that has been reborn by Tom Doak. Yarra dates to the 1920s but reopened in 2018 after a two-year reinvigoration by Doak, which led to a rerouting of the holes, a restoration of Alex Russell’s occasionally wild greens and deforestation that joined fairways and opened up sweeping vistas. Yarra Yarra has hosted many of Australia’s most important tournaments in its long, history but the inaugural Sandbelt Invitational marked a new beginning. Tournament leader Brady Watt (9 under) helped christen the course with a 66 and afterward enthused, “Good to see another Tom Doak. That was awesome. I didn’t recognize it. It was nothing like I remembered it. I enjoyed it big-time.” He laughed about his bogey on the 13th hole, where a pretty good drive wound up stymied behind a tree: “They took out every tree except for the one on 13!”
John Lyras, a 25-year-old from Sydney who has played the Australasian, Mackenzie and Forme tours, raced to second place (4 under) with a course-record 64. He had never before laid eyes on the reimagined Yarra Yarra and navigated its heaving terrain without so much as a yardage book. The key to his round was employing the kind of course management that never goes out of style on these timeless playing fields.
“I played Sandbelt golf the way you need to,” said Lyras (below). “It makes the holes a little easier if you play the narrow side of the fairway to open up the angles. Just playing to where you’re supposed to, play for pars and stay patient. It’s totally different to American golf. Don’t get too down if you don’t make birdie—pars are a great score out here. Having to shape shots into the greens and hit shots with hook spin and alter your trajectory, it’s just so much fun. You don’t know what kind of bounce you’ll get, but if you control it with ball flight and trajectory going into the green you can generally keep it on the right side of the hole and give yourself an uphill birdie putt, which is really important here.”
That only six players are under par through 54 holes is a testament to tournament organizers encouraging each of the four host venues to replicate the setup of the “monthly medal,” which is to say tipped-out and with the most challenging pin positions. The final round will be contested at Peninsula Kingswood, where Watt is a new member and Marcus Fraser (tied for third at 3 under) has long played. “I’m pretty sure tomorrow will be fiery, [the greenskeepers at Peninsula Kingswood] are pretty excited,” says Geoff Ogilvy, co-founder of the Invitational. “You gotta play smart or you’ll get in trouble pretty quick.”
Grace Kim (T5, 1 under) is in the best position among the women in the field and will be looking for some final-round magic. Lyras is hunting another course record after saying at Yarra Yarra, “I’m thrilled to put my name on the honor board here.” Watt will try to bring home the trophy without his girlfriend on the bag—she begged off from caddie duties citing sore feet, despite him providing extensive foot massage services prior to the third round. Every player in the field will try to soak up one last competitive round in another year that has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s a dream event before Christmas,” says Watt. “Nice to be playing something.” For all the talk about gratitude and perspective at this inspired new tournament, final-round pressure is inescapable when a glittering trophy is at stake. Watt summed up the Sandbelt Invitational with one final thought: “It feels relaxed but still means a lot.”