NO LONGER THE HACK
Justin Harding has been one of the biggest climbers up the World Ranking.
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.