Justin Harding has always been big on taking opportunities when they come his way. He’s done that successfully throughout his golf career, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
But recently, when such an opportunity came his way in his personal life, he took it in much the same fashion. In fact, he moved continents for it. Or rather, for her.
‘Why the UK? That would probably be because of Leah,’ he says with a laugh when asked about his decision to relocate to Surrey. ‘We met through friends in London in 2019. I had a week off and stayed in London to do a bit of sightseeing, and we hit it off and kept in touch.’
But Harding’s devotion to his career means the move also has obvious benefits in terms of travel requirements.
‘I was in South Africa for a long time. I find that the guys who have stayed in South Africa are the ones with families. But I can tell you, it’s a hell of a lot easier travelling the European Tour and the odd event on the PGA Tour from England. The flights are shorter. I racked up air miles like you can’t believe while travelling from Cape Town in 2018 and 2019. Now I’m about 30 minutes from London. I’m nicely located between Heathrow and the club I play out of, Wisley Golf Club. It’s a similar set-up to the one I had living in Somerset West, playing in Stellenbosch and then having Cape Town International close enough too. Although I do miss not having a practice buddy. I miss being able to call up Ollie Bekker and say let’s go and hit a few balls at Stellenbosch Golf Club. But otherwise, my set-up is a lot like home.’
The move has been an important one for Harding, on a number of fronts, because right now in his career he is feeling more settled than ever. And that’s the perfect place to be in terms of his future plans.
‘I’m a little more settled in my personal life and feeling very relaxed. The move came hand-in-hand with the Covid-19 pandemic, so that was a bit different for me. For the first few months of lockdown in England, Leah and I were in a small one-bedroom flat in central London which I found difficult. But when lockdown eased I tried to find a golf club and a bigger place to stay. And now I’ve found a nice spot and I’m happy. I’m excited.’
It was in May 2018 when Justin Harding won back-to-back in Swaziland, and embarked on a journey that took his career to the next level and all the way to The Masters in 2019, where he finished tie-12th on debut. It seems ages since he sat at home in South Africa and made that critical decision to give up social drinking and throw every ounce of the prodigious talent he has into making a full go of his golf career. And he hasn’t looked back.
He recently returned to African fairways and won his second European Tour title at the Magical Kenya Open. He came close to back-to-back wins – which would have been the third time in his career he’s achieved this – but was beaten over the line by Daniel van Tonder in the following week’s Kenya Savannah Classic.
‘It took longer than I anticipated to get the second European Tour win. But winning is hard, and everybody is fighting hard to win each week. So to fend them all off is difficult. Daniel has deserved it for a long time. You know, it’s not easy to make it on to the European Tour, especially going through Qualifying Schools. For him to get there is well deserved. He’s a serial winner on the Sunshine Tour and now we have another South African on the European Tour, which is great.’
Harding has done a lot of work refining his equipment set-up as he focuses on where he wants to go in his career and a place on the PGA Tour. After countless hours with Titleist, he believes he has a rock-solid set in his hands.
‘I’ve put together a set of clubs that’s more reminiscent of what was going on two years ago in terms of set-up and club selection. I tweaked that a bit when I went over to the United States because the courses demanded it, and for the majority of 2020 I forced myself to hit driver on holes I didn’t want to. Most of my mistakes were made from not quite putting the ball in play, or playing out of the rough and not being able to hit it close enough to the hole. Playing in Asia taught me the value of putting the ball in play and giving yourself chances. So I’m hoping that with the new set-up and returning to an old and successful philosophy, it will produce a few good results.’
But most of all Harding has been tinkering with his emotional set-up. Always a fiery competitor, he has worked very hard to control his emotions on the course – whether he’s winning or losing. As much as professional golfers strive for consistency in results, Harding has coupled this with consistency in his emotional state.
‘I used to ride waves on the golf course. It was an emotional rollercoaster for me. I’ve tried to mellow a bit more. Now I’m not overly excited when I make a birdie or a bogey. Just being more calm has given me more mental energy, and ultimately it’s all about mental fatigue in this game. Winning is tiring because you’re concentrating for a longer period of time than the rest of the field. I read a lot of books and saw a few sports psychologists. The tricky part is that as I was progressively falling in the World Ranking, you have this anxiety as to when is it going to stop. I was always a bit fiery on the golf course, but I’m a little bit more internal with that. Inside the clocks and wheels are turning, for sure. But I don’t get too outwardly excited now and I try to just have that confidence in my ability.’
A part of this process has been working through a result that still haunts him to this day.
‘In 2019 I was gutted to miss out on my PGA Tour card by such a small margin,’ he says.
Harding was so close to securing his place on the PGA Tour, only to finish 26th on the Korn Ferry Tour’s Finals. He was one spot away from a PGA Tour card. Even worse, he was a five-foot birdie putt away. Not his own putt, but that of Lanto Griffin. Had Griffin holed that putt on the 18th of the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, Harding would have finished 25th on the final standings and earned his Tour card. After a few years when he couldn’t put a foot wrong and the world of golf rewarded him, this was a massive blow.
‘That hurt deep down because that was the first thing that didn’t go my way for a long time. It’s my dream to play on the PGA Tour, so to not get over the line there was tough. It set me back for a bit. Then we had 2020, where we didn’t know what was going to happen. Then again, if I won at Valderrama [where he finished third at the Andalucia Masters] or at the British Masters [where he also finished third], 2020 would’ve been a success. But not doing so means it didn’t feel like a good year. I didn’t play bad golf, but I didn’t putt as well as I would’ve liked. That’s turning for me now.’
And he’s excited to take advantage.
‘In 2019 when I was playing so well, I got into the big events. I was competitive at them too. I was maybe one poor round away from a decent week. But that’s the schedule you want to play – the World Golf Championship events and the Majors. You need to be in at least the top 75 in the world for that. If you can hover around there and sneak into the top 50 now and again, you can play that kind of schedule.’
And given the chance, Harding has no doubt he’s able to compete at the highest level.
‘It’s all different stages and levels. The Sunshine Tour has an unbelievable quality of golfer, then the European Tour is a different kettle of fish and the PGA Tour is even more different to that. I’m somewhat successful on the European Tour, and I’ve touched the PGA Tour and what I regard as the highest of levels in terms of quality of fields and golfers.
‘The PGA Tour events, regardless of what they are, with the amount of money you’re playing for, you do get a little overawed at times. I suppose it’s the same when you’re coming through the Sunshine Tour, and then the European Tour co-sanctioned events come around and so much of your season depends on what you do at those few tournaments. And make no mistake, the golfers on the PGA Tour can play. You just don’t see a bad putter over there. Everyone has their own levels of pressure in this game. I’ve also noticed that for some reason I don’t perform well in the Rolex Series events on the European Tour. I have no idea why, but it’s something I need to fix because those tournaments can turn a good season into an unbelievable one.’
Harding has worked hard to manage his energy during what are always long seasons for a man who plays more tournaments than most. And to keep the hunger when he’s not in contention and use that week to build some momentum for the next. Those are his key thoughts at the moment.
‘I like to play as much golf as I can. I don’t put the clubs away for six to seven weeks and go fishing. I like golf too much. I play more events than most because I love this game.’
In love with golf. In love, full stop.
‘I’m happy,’ he says. ‘Now I’m just waiting to kick on.’