NO LONGER THE HACK

Justin Hard­ing has been one of the big­gest clim­bers up the World Rank­ing.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Barry Havenga

Giv­ing up al­co­hol and re­turn­ing to a broom han­dle put­ter were key fac­tors in the 32-year-old South African pro­fes­sional win­ning four times this year, in­clud­ing con­sec­u­tive tri­umphs on his Asian Tour de­but. Hard­ing has soared from No 712 to No 99 on the World Golf Rank­ing and banked close to R4-mil­lion in prize­money.

●●● NO­BODY CALLS ME JUSTIN ON TOUR.

I’m known as ‘Hack’ to every­one. Grow­ing up at Som­er­set West Coun­try Club I could make par from any­where and ev­ery­where no mat­ter how badly I was hit­ting it. My num­ber plate even reads HACK 1 WP. As a pro­fes­sional golfer you ob­vi­ously don’t want to scram­ble a lot, but it has helped me in my ca­reer. I can stand on the first tee know­ing I’m not feel­ing my best, and still pro­duce a com­pet­i­tive score.

●●● I PLAYED LEAGUE GOLF IN TWO DIF­FER­ENT PRO­VIN­CIAL UNIONS.

Play­ing league golf as a young­ster I would play 36 holes on a Sat­ur­day for Som­er­set West in the Boland league, then 36 on Sun­day for Strand GC a few kilo­me­tres away in the Western Prov­ince league. I was hand­i­capped at Som­er­set West be­cause I wanted to play pro­vin­cial golf for Boland. When Som­er­set West left Boland to join the WP Golf Union I be­came a mem­ber at Stel­len­bosch GC.

●●● LIFE AT LA­MAR WAS GLO­RI­OUS.

Dur­ing my years at the Uni­ver­sity of La­mar (in Beau­mont, Texas) there were at one stage three Boland golfers on the col­lege team – my­self, Dawie van der Walt and Oliver Bekker – and the three of us have gone on to win mul­ti­ple times on the Sun­shine Tour. Cur­rent PGA Tour play­ers Chris Stroud and An­drew Landry were also at La­mar dur­ing my time there. In 2007 we fin­ished third at the NCAA Men’s Cham­pi­onship and were so strong that the Uni­ver­sity of Texas (where Dy­lan Frit­telli and Bran­don Stone would land up in later years) wouldn’t in­vite us to their tour­na­ments. They didn’t want a ‘small school’ up­stag­ing them.

●●● I LAUGH ABOUT IT NOW, BUT MY SUN­SHINE TOUR DE­BUT WASN’T FUN AT ALL.

I fin­ished third at the 2010 Sun­shine Tour Qual­i­fy­ing School and my first tour­na­ment was the Africa Open at East Lon­don, or at least the pre-qual­i­fier for that tour­na­ment at Fish River Sun. I played two prac­tice rounds be­fore the pre-qual­i­fier, shoot­ing 65 both times. I was su­perex­cited and posted my con­fi­dent feel­ings on so­cial me­dia, some­thing along the lines of, “The jour­ney starts to­mor­row at 07:20!” The wind switched di­rec­tion overnight and I shot 92 to fin­ish dead last in a field of 93 hope­fuls. My dad asked me if I was go­ing to hand my score­card in (he was wor­ried about what po­ten­tial spon­sors might think), and I shot back with, “Yes, I’m try­ing!” Then the mes­sages and so­cial me­dia replies started. Branden Gace and Ge­orge Coet­zee kicked things off with “It be­gan at 07:20 and by 08:00 it was all over!”

●●● BUT MY MAIDEN PRO SEA­SON HAD A HAPPY END­ING.

I strug­gled with the pre-qual­i­fy­ing grind in 2010, fail­ing to get into most events and then miss­ing cuts when I did. That was un­til the Vo­da­com Ori­gins of Golf Fi­nal was played at Oubaai in Oc­to­ber. I had won the South­ern Cape Open there as an ama­teur and on my bag that week I had my for­mer Boland team­mate J J Senekal (now a two-time tour win­ner). I man­aged to hold my nerve to win by one. The jour­ney had started.

●● I WON AN­OTHER FOUR TIMES OVER THE NEXT SEVEN YEARS, BUT SOME­THING WAS MISS­ING.

To­wards the end of 2017 I started re-assess­ing my ca­reer. I was un­der­achiev­ing and I be­gan analysing why that was the case. I was tired of not be­ing in con­tention enough, and of­ten would go through the mo­tions in the fi­nal round of a tour­na­ment. I found it dif­fi­cult to mo­ti­vate my­self when the break­down in prize­money was in­signif­i­cant. Due to the re­mote­ness of some of our events, play­ers would in­ter­act so­cially in the evenings and it’s easy to start en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence a lit­tle too much. Fi­nan­cially I was okay, but I wasn’t pro­gress­ing, and the weeks and even years were fly­ing by.

●●● A DRA­MATIC CHANGE IN MY LIFE­STYLE WAS CALLED

FOR. I wanted to be bet­ter. Ge­orge Coet­zee spoke to me and sug­gested not drink­ing al­co­hol lead­ing up to a tour­na­ment, and dur­ing it, like he does. It was tough at first be­cause I’m nat­u­rally a very so­cial per­son and like to be among the ban­ter. But I stuck to it. In­stead of sit­ting on the club­house ve­ran­dah with a beer in my hand af­ter a round, I was on the range or prac­tice putting green.

●●● I WENT ONE STEP FUR­THER AND GAVE UP DRINK­ING COM­PLETELY.

It wasn’t enough (for me) to only re­frain from drink­ing dur­ing a tour­na­ment. Dur­ing off weeks I would prac­tice and play at Stel­len­bosch and then so­cialise with mem­bers in the evening. I looked closely at my stats which re­vealed that I made lots of birdies, but plenty of bo­geys too. There were too many mis­takes hap­pen­ing, many of them to­wards the end of a round, which in­di­cated that my con­cen­tra­tion lev­els weren’t good enough. Two beers with friends af­ter I missed the cut at the US PGA Cham­pi­onship in Au­gust is the only al­co­hol I’ve touched this year. Cap­puc­ci­nos and sparkling wa­ter are my sta­ple drinks now.

●●● GO­ING BACK TO THE LONG PUT­TER WAS ALSO A TIMELY DE­CI­SION.

At the SA Open at Glen­dower in Jan­uary I played in the group be­hind Shaun Nor­ris and watched him hole ev­ery­thing with the long wand. I’d used one (50 inches) for a large part of my ca­reer un­til the an­chor­ing ban was im­ple­mented at the be­gin­ning of 2016. I spoke to him af­ter the round and he showed me how he used it with­out an­chor­ing. The pub­lic don’t usu­ally see this, but pro­fes­sional golfers do help each other out.

●●● IF YOU DON’T ASK, YOU DON’T GET.

With a new life­style and greater con­fi­dence on the greens, my form im­proved dra­mat­i­cally. From Fe­bru­ary to mid-May my tour­na­ment record read: Third, T-18, sixth, missed cut, T-9, T-3, MC, T-5, se­cond, win and win. The vic­to­ries came in con­sec­u­tive weeks in Swazi­land (In­vestec Royal Swazi Open and Lom­bard In­sur­ance Clas­sic).

There was a break in the sched­ule af­ter that so I asked the Sun­shine Tour if they could re­quest an in­vite on my be­half to play on the Asian Tour. I re­ceived a favourable re­sponse and trav­elled to Jakarta for the In­done­sian Open.

● ● ● RID­ING A WAVE OF HOT FORM.

I led by three through 54 holes from Zim­bab­wean Scott Vin­cent, but he had moved one ahead of me through nine holes on Sun­day. I knew that fin­ish­ing se­cond would be a good re­sult on my Asian Tour de­but, but with­out any sta­tus I’d have to win to carry on play­ing events. A bo­gey-free back nine with three birdies saw me edge Scott by one. Sud­denly, and un­ex­pect­edly, I’d won over­seas! My next event was the Sun­shine Tour’s Karen Masters in Kenya (fin­ish­ing 18th), then I re­turned to the Asian Tour for the Royal Cup in Thai­land. This time I led by two af­ter three rounds and knew that if I won I’d be in the top 100 in the world rank­ing and ex­empt into the 100th US PGA Cham­pi­onship at Bel­lerive CC. I was six ahead through 12 holes then made dou­ble on 13 and could just imag­ine how my par­ents would be re­act­ing back home in Som­er­set West, fol­low­ing the live scor­ing on­line. But I birdied 15 and for the first time in my ca­reer I was able to en­joy the walk down 18 en route to a six-shot vic­tory.

● ● ● GLOBE-TROT­TING LIKE A TOUR VET­ERAN.

My next stop was the Fiji In­ter­na­tional (10½-hour flight from Bangkok), a co­sanc­tioned Euro­pean-Asian Tour event where I fin­ished T-25. That Sun­day I was up at 4am, played the fi­nal round, and headed to the air­port for an­other 10½-hour flight to Los An­ge­les, from where I con­nected to St Louis for the PGA week. Be­cause I crossed the In­ter­na­tional Date Line it was like liv­ing a 40-hour day when I even­tu­ally checked into my ho­tel. I did, how­ever, buy my very first busi­ness­class ticket from Fiji to LAX.

● ● ● THE 100TH PGA CHAM­PI­ONSHIP WAS AN IN­CRED­I­BLE EX­PE­RI­ENCE.

Un­for­tu­nately Bel­lerive CC was not a course that suited my game. There were too many dog­leg-left holes and I hit a fade. It’s fine for guys like Brooks Koepka and Dustin John­son who can carry the cor­ners but I don’t have that kind of length off the tee. The fren­zied crowds were in­cred­i­ble. Some play­ers moan about Amer­i­can crowds be­ing ob­nox­ious but I didn’t mind them at all. I ac­tu­ally en­joy it. I don’t know if it was a co­in­ci­dence, but the St Louis Car­di­nals (base­ball team) were out of town that week, so every­one came to the golf! I played a prac­tice round with Branden (Grace), Charl (Schwartzel) and Bran­don (Stone), which was great, and end­ing up miss­ing the cut by two. The fi­nal bit of adrenalin I had left in me ran out that Fri­day evening. I was shat­tered from all the trav­el­ling. I had flown 73 000 kilo­me­tres dur­ing the five weeks I was away from home.

● ● ● FE­MALE CADDIES IN ASIA ARE TER­RIFIC. When com­pet­ing, I tend to

do most of the yardage work and read­ing of greens my­self, be­cause I feel it helps with my con­cen­tra­tion lev­els, so I don’t need a lot of help out there. My cad­die in In­done­sia was al­ways smil­ing, whether I made birdie or bo­gey. When I hit the green in reg­u­la­tion on the 72nd hole she burst out cry­ing, re­al­is­ing that we were go­ing to win.

● ● ● I’VE RE­ALISED THE IM­POR­TANCE OF CHOOS­ING A SCHED­ULE TO SUIT MY GAME.

I haven’t been able to do that be­fore be­cause on the Sun­shine Tour you kind of have to play ev­ery­thing. There’s a rea­son Tiger only plays cer­tain events – the cour­ses suit him. He’s won mul­ti­ple times at sev­eral of the same tour­na­ment venues. Hope­fully as I progress fur­ther in the game, I’ll have the lux­ury of choos­ing to play cour­ses I feel com­fort­able on.

● ● ● TWO GOOD FRIENDS ON THE SUN­SHINE TOUR LIKE TO TAKE SOME CREDIT FOR WHAT’S HAP­PENED TO ME THIS YEAR.

Prior to my first win in Swazi­land in May, Daniel Greene sug­gested a slight tweak in my ball po­si­tion dur­ing setup, and then Lyle Rowe joked that dou­ble-bo­gey­ing the fi­nal hole (which al­lowed me to win by one) got me started on that amaz­ing run of form.

● ● ● TRAV­EL­LING ON A BRITISH PASS­PORT HAS HELPED TREMEN­DOUSLY.

I didn’t re­alise the full ex­tent of the power of my British pass­port un­til I started play­ing over­seas. The cost and has­sle of ap­ply­ing for visas – par­tic­u­larly if you’re play­ing the Euro­pean or Asian Tour – on a South African pass­port must be in­cred­i­bly drain­ing.

I WENT ONE STEP FUR­THER AND GAVE UP DRINK­ING COM­PLETELY.

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