BY STAFF, PGATOUR.COM
AVONDALE, LA – When an unfamiliar name popped up on the Masters Tournament leaderboard recently, almost everyone gasped with the same question – “Who is Justin Harding?”
For golf’s fervent followers in South Africa and Asia, Harding is already a familiar name thanks to a combined nine victories on the Sunshine and Asian Tours. Last month, he took another big leap forward in his career by securing his biggest win yet at the Qatar Masters on the European Tour.
The rewards for an amazing five wins over a span of 10 months have included appearances in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, the Masters and other PGA TOUR starts, including the Zurich Classic of New Orleans this week.
Ranked 712th in the world at the end of 2017, he now sits in 45th place and finds himself mixing it up with the big boys and hanging out with potential teammates for the Presidents Cup
As a child, Harding grew up in Somerset West, South Africa and played junior golf alongside the likes of Branden Grace, a three-time Presidents Cup International Team member. Surfing was his first sporting love but once his father, a businessman, introduced him to golf, Harding was hooked and later developed into a good amateur golfer.
Strangely though, he had earned the nickname “Hack” as a junior player due to his wayward driving and a taboo that observes is to avoid playing with No. 3 golf balls.
“I’ve used them a few times and wasn’t successful .… I’ve banned it,” he laughs.
This is Harding’s fifth consecutive week playing on U.S. soil but it isn’t something new as he played college golf at Lamar University in Texas where he majored in business studies. After graduating in 2010, he turned professional and returned home to cut his professional teeth where he would later win the first of his seven titles later that year.
At the Masters, the unassuming South African didn’t hack it around as he produced a measured performance to finish a commendable T12 which guaranteed a return trip in 2020. It also made the golfing world sit up and take notice of his talent.
Grace, who is teaming up with Harding in the Zurich Classic, isn’t surprised to see Harding showing up on golf’s biggest stage. “He’s very sneaky and streaky,” said Grace.
“He’s always been like that. That’s why he’s got the nickname ‘Hack’. He’s not always as straight off the tee but he gets it going. He’s really good with wedges and a putter in his hand, he’s really deadly and that’s what you need out here. He’s a hell of a grinder.
“I’ve known Justin for like forever. Obviously when you turn pro and you go your separate ways … but it’s nice to be able to get together now and play on the big scene together. He’s a great golfer and obviously we all know the last two years that he’s had, and it’s great to have him out here playing.”
Harding’s recent success has made him a genuine contender to qualify for the International Team for the Presidents Cup against the United States at Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Australia from December 9-15. With countryman and idol, Ernie Els captaining of the squad, Harding hopes to book his seat on the plane to Australia.
As a 17-year-old, he was amongst the throngs of fans gathered at Fancourt when South Africa hosted the Presidents Cup in 2003. There, he witnessed the historic showdown up close where Els and Tiger Woods battled it out like gladiators in sudden-death which ended in a stalemate following three extra holes played in near darkness.
“I went up to it and watched it first-hand. Watching Tiger and Ernie going against each other in the dark was pretty special,” said Harding.
“It’s an opportunity of a life time and I like to not let it slip. There are so many really good players and the team will be strong regardless.”
Els likes what he has seen from Harding after playing several rounds together during the past year. “Incredible story,” said the South African legend. “In less than 18 months, he’s come from absolutely not having a card on the Asian Tour, to winning on the Asian Tour, winning in Europe and finishing 12th at the Masters. And he’s got a great game obviously. He can win worldwide and he’s a great wind player. He could be a great asset to our team.”
Trevor Immelman, who is one of the captain’s assistants, has followed Harding’s career closely as they hail from the same hometown. “It’s a huge thrill for me to see him really starting to break through,” said Immelman, who is a Masters champion.
“In South Africa we’ve known about him for a few years now. Guys that know him have been waiting for him to kind of find his voice, so to speak, in the international game. It’s great to see him starting to compete so well in Europe and win in Qatar and transition that game straight here to the States. I mean, his first Masters, the guy finishes tied for 12th.
“He really doesn’t have too many weaknesses, and mentally what’s exciting is he’s really tough. He wants to play well and won’t be intimidated by anybody. I think it’ll be awesome if he manages to make this team.”
Harding reveals golf drives him to excel as success or failure in the game is totally dependent on his own attitude and effort. “I was pretty sporty but I like the individual aspect of golf, figuring out the puzzle and not relying on team members. If you get further, you get more rewards for an individual,” he said.
Except for this week which is a two-man team competition, Harding is prepared to grind it out on his own over the next four months before qualifying ends in August for the eight automatic slots for the International Team.
“It’s been a good 12 months, I’ve put up some good results and my golf is on an upward curve,” he said.
“It’s awesome I’ve made it out here on the PGA TOUR but by no means I’ve arrived. I’ve got a lot of work to do before I can put on a jersey (for the Presidents Cup).”