Justin Harding, one of the Sunshine Tour’s biggest talents, feels he has found the right recipe to take his game to the next level, writes MICHAEL VLISMA in Compleat Golfer.
When Harding assesses his swing and where it can go wrong, there is a sense it mirrors the decision he’s made in his life to avoid certain obvious pitfalls.
‘The big thing for me with my swing is controlling my speed. I’m naturally quicker than most and get a little bit out of whack now and again. But I have a reasonable understanding of what I’m doing wrong when I do it.’ And a face always quick to smile lights up with a sparkle of mischief in those blue eyes.
Harding is a seven-time winner on the Sunshine Tour who won in his rookie season in 2010. He has had only three years where he didn’t win at least one tournament, so there was never any doubt he can play. Never any doubt in his mind either when, as a top amateur in South Africa, he received a letter from a US college basically asking him, ‘How is it possible that you are ranked higher than Matthew Kent and Anton Haig?’ Harding laughs at that now. It’s a perfect example of how he’s always made his own way.
But this year, he has moved to another level with two strong wins in May that are a direct result of his new approach to his career.
‘Maybe I’m not really relying on talent any more, but rather more on a wiser head,’ says Harding.
‘I changed a few of my social activities. I’ve dialled them down. I gave up the social drinking, which has been huge. I also gave up having one or two beers during a tournament. George Coetzee has been hassling me to do that for a number of years.
‘Ultimately I’m treating it more as a job now than in the past. It is fun and it must remain fun, but the up-and-down nature of my previous seasons has been a rollercoaster, when I’d prefer it to be a straight line, gradually increasing.
‘I had a sense of underperforming. But you always feel that in this game. It was a sense of being 32 years old, eight years on Tour, and if I’m going to make this work, something needs to change.
‘It’s more about realising I’ve got a good golf game, but how am I going to make it better? I’ve identified areas of my life that are potentially holding me back and I came to the realisation that I have too much fun and need to dial it down. I’m now choosing when I can have fun and am not making it so spontaneous. That’s been huge, and it’s shown in the results.
‘I’m mentally fitter when I come to tournaments. I’m no longer making the mistakes I used to at the end of rounds.’
Harding has also been striving to become more consistent, which is against his nature of playing for wins rather than top-10s.
‘I was winning the odd event but still finishing 35th or 40th on the Order of Merit. I had always said to myself that I’d rather win than finish in the top 10 three times in a row, which for money purposes and category-ranking purposes is great.
‘But you look at the top players on the PGA Tour and they seem to be finishing inside the top 10 and then winning three out of every six tournaments they start. So clearly they’re doing something right. It’s a process that’s been more about trying to give myself more opportunities, and it seems to be working.’
And it’s a process that stats told him was necessary to undergo.
‘I was always in the top 10 in birdies made every year, but also inside the top 10 in bogeys made. I’ve identified what keeps holding me back and been trying to work on that.
‘A key word for me in my golf is ‘‘momentum’’, and maintaining that during my rounds and not making the silly bogeys. I seem to be minimising mistakes nowadays. I’ve realised that if you minimise the bogeys, odds are you’ll shoot 68 or 67 every day.
‘But it’s been a tricky process to change because I like being up there competing for the win. I’ve always been an aggressive golfer and when I found myself in that middle-of-the-pack range, quite frankly I got bored. I would just freewheel it out there and see what happened.’
But a week in Zimbabwe this season convinced him of the value of consistency in tournament golf.
‘It was during the Old Mutual Zimbabwe Open. I had an up-and-down round in on the first day and was at two over par with 12 to play in the second round and out of the cut line. I made a few birdies, put myself back in there and played two good rounds on the weekend and managed to finish fifth. It made me realise you can make something happen if you need to.
‘I’ve shifted my focus to try to get the positives out of every round, even when I’m not in contention. For example, say I’m out of the running for the title, I’ll try to focus on shooting a bogey-free 66 in the final round. At least then I’ll take a bit of confidence going into the next week.’
At the age of 32 and with eight years worth of experience on the Sunshine Tour, it’s probably a case of talent now blending with experience that is starting to make the real difference in Harding’s career.
‘I have more of an understanding of situations. I’m no longer just a deer in the headlights. I’ve grown in this respect. Now I have a desire to improve. I don’t want to sit in a comfort level and tread water. That’s where I was, floating from one week to the next. Now I go into events with goals and strategies and an understanding that if I do put my head down, I’ve got a good chance of competing. It’s a different mindset.
‘The results have come a little quicker than I thought they would and it feels great. I always knew I was a good golfer. I’ve won at every level in the past so there was no reason I couldn’t make this change successfully. It’s been a bit tricky, but it’s working. I just need to stick to it now.’
It should hardly be surprising that Harding has worked this out for himself. It’s what he does. He’s never had a coach or seen a sports psychologist, preferring instead to work things out himself.
‘I wouldn’t say I’m in the Bryson DeChambeau league of doing things, but I like figuring this game out. I take advice from a few close friends on Tour. But I’m not the type of person to beat a thousand balls on the range and try to get my swing in any particular position. I’m more feel-based. I practise less than I play. I like to base where my game is at in terms of how I feel when I’m out there playing. It’s more about getting results for me. If I’m on the range making swings I just can’t see it.’
This is why he’s developed a swing he understands and which he knows how to fix when he needs to do so. And in this process you see how Harding also came to making golf his career. For him, it must be something he eventually sees in his own head first before he can turn it into reality, even when it comes to making the wholesale lifestyle changes he’s made.
‘I’m a little bit more patient on the golf course and it’s allowed me to enjoy it more because it’s less stressful. I’m hitting fewer bad shots, and when I do I’m controlling them better. They’re not those damaging shots of the past. It’s got to have something to do with me behaving myself better and being fresher coming into tournaments.
‘I want to try to maintain the consistency until European Tour Qualifying School at the end of the year. I’m straight into second stage. I’ve been through first stage and the whole run before, and I said I’d go back if I’m exempt through first stage, which I am now. It’s hard work. The game’s good enough that if I keep my head on my shoulders I should come through. I think I’d be competitive on the Tour if I got on it, but getting there is the tricky part.’
There is more than enough talent in his game. But when you match talent with experience, a more complete picture of true potential emerges. And just as is the case with his swing, Harding can see that in his own head now.
‘You need that understanding. You need to know where it goes wrong and then have one or two quick fixes you can rely on,’ he says of his swing.
And 2018 could well be the year he looks back on realising that it was when he got that same recipe right for his life, too.
– This article first appeared in the July issue of Compleat Golfer, since then Harding has gone on to make a winning start to his Asian Tour debut before winning the Royal Cup on his second start