Use the course

“Smash it.”

Michael Dovhey, dad/caddie/PR rep/coach/chauffeur of 7-year-old Oviedoan golf prodigy Isabella Dovhey tees up another ball.

“Sometimes I’ll say stuff like that to get her fired up,” he says over his shoulder.

Thwack.

Bella’s ball travels straight down the driving range. So does the next one…and the next one.

Bella and Mike were at Tuscawilla Country Club’s café, The Grill, before heading out to play a couple holes on the course. Although she is only 7, a number of articles have already documented her vivacious personality. They don’t lie. Within the first five minutes of meeting, Bella is singing “Hall of Fame” by The Script, complete with interpretive dance moves.

You can tell instantly that Bella is a celebrity at Tuscawilla Country Club. Players smile and wave to her from their carts, and she greets them cheerfully. The bartender smiles at the two as they walk in the door of the café.

“It all began when she started tagging along in the cart with me when she was four, because otherwise she’d have to sit at home with her brothers and sister and her babysitter,” Mike says. “She kind of fell in love with the game because I was in love with the game.”

After he saw Bella enjoyed using his golf clubs, Mike got her a set of her own and played little contests with her on the course. They then started playing best ball parent-child tournaments at Twin Rivers Golf Club in Oviedo, and soon Mike realized her potential.

“After five months we were really only playing her ball,” Mike says.

Bella giggles and adds, “Yeah, I would have best ball and he would have lost ball.”

From there, Mike focused on her game more and they haven’t stopped since. Bella, as of August, has 121 first place wins. Since last March, she has shot 30(-6) twice and 31(-5) three times for nine holes in her age group, and last month she finished first in the US Kids Florida State Championship girls 7 at Disney with a 63(-9), the lowest score out of 245 players in all different age groups.

She kind of fell in love with the game because I was in love with the game.”

Despite Bella’s goofy, fun-loving nature, she does have a self-proclaimed competitive streak, which may explain her impressive stats.

This, of course, doesn’t come without practice. Although Bella has a natural feel for the game, she hits balls from her backyard and over the fence into the Hagerty practice field almost every morning, plus trips to Tuscawilla. She’s played courses in California, North Carolina, Illinois, Georgia, Scotland, Italy and over 100 courses in Florida. Bella proudly shows pictures of her on the famous Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews in Scotland.

“They saw her hitting balls on the driving range at Gleneagles in Scotland and they really gave her the princess treatment,” Mike says. “They let her play £200 a round for free or something insane.”

Bella claims it was £300.

“The clubhouse was, like, 50 stories tall,” she recalls.

Bella plans to play for Hagerty’s golf team when she gets to high school. She is currently in second grade at Carillon Elementary, but she has strong ties to the school through her three alumni siblings, Andrew, Seth and Megan.

“Since her earliest memories she’s gone to every manner of sporting event at Hagerty,” Mike says. “We’re die-hard Hagerty sports fans, and being in such close proximity to the gymnasium and the sports stadium allows her to see all the sporting events, which makes her that much more sporty and competitive. She was also a Husky Pup when she was four in Mrs. Burrell’s pre-school class. It’s kind of neat how Hagerty’s been so influential, even at this age.”

Bella scrolls through her dad’s phone, showing all the courses she’s played. She’s seen so many cool places at just 7 years old, but her family has not gone without sacrifice to make sure she can follow her dreams.

“We’re not a wealthy family,” Mike says. “I work as a nurse, my wife works as a nurse and we have three kids in college. Her golf expenses, travel expenses, tournament fees, her membership here, equipment…it’s extraordinary. I had no idea we would be moving in this direction; I had no idea that it would be this expensive.

“I really do think that American girls have a huge disadvantage,” Mike adds. “If my daughter lived in any other country than the United States, she would get full state sponsorship by the government and corporate sponsors, so it’s really upsetting to me when we go to these big international and world championship tournaments and she’s competing against kids that have a professional coach, caddie, mental trainer and a whole entourage of people from their government. I have to try to be everything.”

It’s kind of neat how Hagerty’s been so influential, even at this age.”

A Florida Hospital helicopter flight nurse with up to 14-hour shifts, Mike also loses a lot of sleep. He spends most of his sleeping time on the course with Bella, but he doesn’t mind.

Bella eats a couple more handfuls of the popcorn she ordered and it’s off to the course. They grab a golf cart and head to the driving range. At the range, kids older than Bella struggle to hit the ball more than 10 yards while Bella consistently churns out clean swings.

She takes a break to give a tour of her golf bag. It’s a pink Nike bag, the entire surface covered in signatures. Bella points to each one. Paula Creamer. Jack Nicklaus. Annika Sorenstam.

“Her bag’s a little beaten up, since we come out here in all kinds of weather,” Mike says.

The best part, though, is the Yoda head cover peeking out from the top. Bella and Mike both adore the Star Wars movies, and Mike uses Star Wars as a training strategy for Bella, drawing parallels between Jedi knights using the Force to her powers of guiding the ball into the cup.

“What did I whisper in your ear before that big shot at that one tournament, Bella?” Mike asks her.

She smiles and says, “‘Use the Force.’”

After she’s done at the range, Mike says that Bella can only play a couple holes. Her next tournament is at a course with rougher turf and Tuscawilla’s finely manicured greens are a luxury she can’t indulge in too much. Mike lines up balls at the first hole, each gradually receding from the hole. One by one, Bella putts each ball straight into the cup.

“How many yards are we from the cup?” Mike asks Bella at the next hole.

She thinks for a moment and guesses 47. Mike checks with his distance finder. 49. Not bad.

“That’s the power of Bella Dovhey!” she cheers.

It doesn’t take a Jedi’s intuition to know that sports commentators may be saying the very same about her in the future.

Mike tees up Bella for another shot.
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