Justin Harding, another globe-trotting South African golfer, intends breaking more new ground in 2020, writes GARY LEMKE.
Standing in the middle of yet another fairway, waiting for his turn to play, Justin Harding pulls something from his right pocket and seconds later his face disappears behind a cloud of smoke.
‘Vaping,’ the South African explains later.
‘I quit smoking cigarettes about six months ago and I’m trying to wean myself off completely. My girlfriend is a doctor so she’s obviously looking out for me and I know smoking is not the best thing for the body. But going cold turkey after all this time is not easy. Vaping has been a substitute and the plan is to start the new year by giving that up too. Then to go three weeks “clean” and play at the SA Open like that. If I chop down trees I might have to start again. But, we will have to see … I always knew the day would come when I’d have to stop and meeting my girlfriend started that process.’
Not seeing Harding with the odd puff of smoke, be it from cigarettes or the vape (e-cigarette) will seem odd, given how regularly we have seen him adopt the habit all around the world, including on the manicured fairways of Augusta National at the 2019 Masters. But, with a new year comes new hopes and ambitions.
Whatever 2020 brings for Harding it will be tough repeating what 2019 produced. In fact, the entire past two years have been nothing short of a meteoric upward curve. He ended 2017 ranked 712 in the World Ranking; four wins and 10 other top-10s from 28 tournaments in 2018 saw him shoot up to No 85 by the end of that year. And it didn’t stop there. Another win, at the Qatar Masters in March 2019, his first on the European Tour, earned him a gilt-edged invite to The Masters. There he went out in the third-last group of the day, with Xander Schauffele and Matt Kuchar, and closed with a level-par 72 to finish in a tie for 12th on 280 – five shots behind Tiger Woods.
That took him to No 44 in the world and a month later another top 10 – this time at the AT&T Byron Nelson – pushed him to a career-high 42nd. And to think that, only 11 months earlier, he had missed the cut at the Sunshine Tour’s Zanaco Masters. Surely, few other golfers can speak of such a rise in such a short time.
‘This coming year is going to be very similar to 2019. In 2019 I played my way into just about every tournament but because of the success I had, this season is going to be easier to plan, schedule-wise. This past season I left home in Somerset West in January and by mid-December I’d only spent four days there.
‘In 2020 the plan is to play at the SA Open, then play through the desert, take a couple of weeks off, then go to the WGC event in Mexico, defend my title in Qatar and then it’s a matter of whether I can defend my world ranking to get into the World Match Play. And then it would be the same story … a little bit of golf in the US. I got my Masters invite for 2020 from finishing 12th there in my first attempt, so that’s pretty sweet.’
Harding runs through his schedule so matter-of-factly that you need to pause and take stock of where he has been and where he is going.
‘It was a bit tricky in 2019 because the gaps between the Majors meant I didn’t have anywhere to play. The week after The Masters I played the RBC Heritage and then had a three-week gap before the Byron Nelson, which was the week leading up to the next Major, The PGA Championship. That meant I didn’t have the best tournament preparation. Then it was another break of four weeks to the US Open and then another three-week break. This time I’ll play on the Korn Ferry Tour, where I have full status. I don’t see the point of playing in Europe a week before a Major.’
One of the 33-year-old’s objectives (he turns 34 in February) was to finish inside the top 30 in the Race to Dubai for 2019 and it was a case of job done as he came in at No 26, which opens more doors and ensures a slew of tournament invites.
Yet, for all the success, any dip in form is sure to have one wondering what has gone wrong. Including the US Open, he missed three successive cuts and then three more in September.
‘That was the tough part,’ he says. ‘I picked up an injury and fell out of form. It was probably bound to happen because I’d had a pretty good run for a long period. But dealing with it once your form has dropped a level is hard. I wanted to get it back as quickly as I could. Towards the latter part of 2019 I was desperate to get back to where I had been four, five months earlier, but it wasn’t happening. All the pieces of the puzzle are there and it’s a matter of putting them together. I haven’t figured it out just yet, but it’s not far away. One good nine holes or a couple of events strung together can do the trick.
‘But I’ve always told myself not to take the weeks with me – and that applies to when you’re playing well or not so well. Each week is a completely new environment and new tournament, but in hindsight what I did in 2019 was I dragged the bad form along with me. But then again, it was unusual because I had become used to not playing badly and I guess I played well consistently for such a long time that I got frustrated by the dip.’
It’s always easier to focus on the negatives, but Harding is forthright about the dips he suffered in the second part of this past season. He narrowly missed out on earning his PGA Tour card and a place on Ernie Els’ International team for The Presidents Cup in December.
‘Obviously I was miffed to not get a PGA Tour card. I thought I’d played well enough but I shouldn’t have let it come down to other guys making bogeys and that’s what happened. This past year was unbelievable but at the same time a few things have been a bit disappointing and frustrating.
‘Yes, not being selected for The Presidents Cup is included in that – although I’m not blaming Ernie at all. During the year there had been a lot of talk on Tour about The Presidents Cup. I was in the running and should have secured my automatic pick with a couple of good results, but when I needed them they didn’t come and then I ran out of form. There was plenty going on – the task of trying to get a PGA Tour card, Q-Schools in the US, and Presidents Cup spots on the line. The combination probably affected me. Which is why I’m not even thinking about the 2020 Olympics. If I play well enough, it will sort itself out.’
Harding is referring to the Tokyo Games at the end of July where he stands a chance of representing South Africa.
The two leading golfers on the ranking qualify, and Harding sits at No 4 behind Louis Oosthuizen, Erik van Rooyen and Shaun Norris. ‘I’m not going down the road of over-analysing things. If I can get back to the level I was at, things will sort themselves out. My talking must be done on the golf course.’
That talking has already started, with the 2019-20 season upon us. ‘My goal was to make the top 30 in the Race to Dubai. After that it was a case of resetting and starting again, with the first event at Leopard Creek.’ There he started off the season strongly, finishing tie-seventh.
‘As I said, the pieces of the puzzle are there, it’s a matter of putting them all together. The long putter works for me and it has behaved well throughout the past couple years. I led the PGA Tour stats with the putter and was inside the top 10 in Europe. Sure, there are weeks where they don’t all go in, which is frustrating, but I can’t complain too much, because I have made a lot of putts. The trick is to shake off the bad days, go to bed and wake up the next day with a smile on your face.’
Given the number of air miles Harding racks up, home might be considered more where he lays his hat than where the heart is. But he disputes that. ‘Look, home is still Somerset West, even if it was all of four days in the year since the first week of January. My girlfriend and I intend making London our home from home, though, and work from there. It’s much easier from a travel perspective.’
He’s reminded that if he lives in London he shouldn’t advertise the fact he’s a Manchester United fan.
‘That’s true [laughs], but we’re not having a good time on that front; it’s been rough for a couple of years. My aunt used to work on ships and they went from port to port. I was about six or seven when she came back with a United jersey, and I started supporting them.
‘I’ve got a few jerseys, but other than that there was no real reason why I started supporting them. My mom’s side of the family is Scottish and they support Celtic. I’ve watched Celtic in Glasgow, but never been to Old Trafford. Touch wood, when I go sometime soon I hope they grab a win. All us South Africans on the Tours seem to have a football side and we’re quite competitive. George Coetzee is avidly for Liverpool and there are a couple of Chelsea fans.’
Harding also has other sportsmen on his contacts list he plays golf with on occasion. ‘I’ve known KP [Kevin Pietersen] and the cricketers who play golf for quite a while. I’m mates with Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher; we’ve played at Pearl Valley, De Zalze and once or twice at the Alfred Dunhill. They’re good boys who love good golf and they appreciate it when we South Africans do well on the Tour.’
In fact there is something of a South African sporting brotherhood that exists on the golf circuit.
‘We watched the Rugby World Cup final at our hotel in Shanghai during the WGC-HSBC Champions. They set up a big screen and there were plenty of us South Africans – Louis Oosthuizen, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Erik van Rooyen, Richard Sterne, Zander Lombard included – and we were in the front row. There’d been a lot of chatter that week between us and the English, although the caddies engaged more than us! It was a special night. I still don’t understand how New Zealand lost to England in the semis.’
Although Harding is one of the top golfers in the world, he loves talking sport. ‘I’m an avid sports fan,’ he says with a glint in the eye. Because he spent time in the US college system, he admits to enjoying American sports – football, baseball and basketball – and a bit of fantasy sports.
‘American sport is different and I like it because they’re nuts about it. The college sports are crazy. Right now they’re trying to branch out into paying collegiate athletes money. I don’t disagree with that but it’s a difficult concept because the NCAA are strict in policing. They fear “super teams” will be bought and created.
‘But in South Africa you’ll find my DStv is only switched on for sport and movies. I make a plan to watch just about every big game. Funnily enough I’m not a huge rugby fan. I went to Paul Roos Gym for high school but I stopped playing rugby when I got there. The Afrikaans guys were bigger than me and I’d get my head knocked off. So, I took up golf, hockey and cricket. I watch the Stormers in Super Rugby and Western Province if they’re in a Currie Cup final, and the Boks of course. But you won’t find me running to the TV to check the scores. Also, I guess that when I was younger, I was in the US, so I’ve latched on to their sports.’
However, given he’s travelled Planet Golf so extensively in the past few years he’s become a man of the world. But wherever the schedule takes him in the next year you can be sure he has South Africa carried along with him in his heart. But no cigarettes in the pocket.