Two-time DP World Tour champion Justin Harding has never forgotten his roots and is determined to make a difference, writes MICHAEL VLISMAS.
‘If I can help …’
That’s very often the departure point for Justin Harding. Whether it’s responding to a request for a quote, or even for some time to talk for this cover feature. Or in other matters, such as his support of the Sunshine Tour’s recent donation to the Glen-Graze Rescue Sanctuary in Somerset West, where Harding matched the R10 000 donated by the Players’ Committee with R10,000 of his own. Or even when he sponsored the building of a new fireplace in the clubhouse at Somerset West Golf Club, ‘just to help keep the boys warm in winter’.
While Harding will quickly tell you he certainly doesn’t consider himself a philanthropist in the grandest sense of the word, there is no question he is very much a humanist in the everyday sense of the word.
‘If someone gives me a call, I’ll help out,’ he says from his next assignment in the United Arab Emirates.
Community has always been important to Harding. He misses his home community when he’s out on Tour. He welcomed close friend Oliver Bekker’s qualification for the DP World Tour this season with the words, ‘I’ve been rooting for him to get out here. It’s an extra buddy on Tour to hang out with and push myself against.’
Community is something Harding grew up with in Somerset West as his mother was for years the much-loved face running the tuckshop at Beaumont Primary School, and his father is equally well known on the local fairways.
‘When I’m home I try to play as much golf as I can with my dad and the members at Stellenbosch Golf Club and Somerset West Golf Club. My dad is more like a best friend to me than my dad. And that’s my unwind and recharge. It’s good for my soul.’
It clearly also underpins his thoughts on a number of matters, from supporting an animal shelter in his community to his opinion on the supposed breakaway golf leagues being talked about.
‘You want everyone to have a piece of the pie. It would concern me if anything new came out that benefited only an elite few. That’s not beneficial to the golf community.’
And the way Harding’s brain is wired is that he isn’t just limiting this argument to pure finances.
‘In my opinion, if you look at the IPL, it’s been massive for domestic Indian cricket. But I don’t think it’s been very good for world cricket. It pulls away all your best players from your domestic leagues, and that takes away from those making your domestic players even better. That’s how anyone gets better, playing against better competition. If you’ve got all your best people playing in the same place, there’s no real way of comparing yourself with them, if you don’t get to play with them.
‘I just look at my own game. It’s far easier for me to gauge my performance based upon the best players in the world who are competing in a tournament with me. You need that.
‘It’s one thing watching Brooks Koepka shoot six under par to win a tournament. But if you play at that same tournament with him and he shoots six under to win and you’ve shot three over, you can be like, “OK, I played the same course and same conditions, and now I know what I need to get to.”’
Harding uses the Sunshine Tour as an example of this.
‘Our best players have always supported the Sunshine Tour and played at the big tournaments. They’re the measure for the next generation. With our co-sanctioned events, there’s been greater competition from European golfers coming out regularly. So, the Sunshine Tour is very much a rare commodity in world golf.
‘It doesn’t have the huge prize money you find on the major Tours, but the strength of the golfers and depth creates an environment of intense competition that develops incredible talent. Daniel van Tonder is a great example of a guy who just goes out there and takes it. He plays attacking golf and goes for it. That’s the kind of competitive spirit the Sunshine Tour creates.’
Similarly, says Harding, the greater success of these South African golfers on the international stage inspires the rest to also raise their games.
‘I look at my own career. Deep down, I always believed I was capable of being in the conversation of this current generation of South African golfers flying the flag overseas,’ says the winner of two DP World Tour events, two Asian Tour events, seven Sunshine Tour titles and who has risen to as high as 42 in the world and finished 12th at the 2019 Masters.
‘But there was a point after about five to seven years on the Sunshine Tour where although I’d had decent success, I felt like I was treading water. I was seeing my mates like George Coetzee and Branden Grace winning overseas, and I had a sense that I was falling behind. That kicked me on in 2017 and 2018. And now that I’ve reached the level I’m at, I’m trying to kick on from that too. Everything’s a journey in this game. There was a time where I was nervous about not being on the DP World Tour; it’s nice to now live out that dream.’
Harding also believes he has more consistency in his game.
‘My golf has taken an evolution. Years ago I was very erratic in my form and I’ve worked hard at trying to be more consistent. In 2018 I actually based my entire set-up on Justin Rose and the kind of consistency he shows. He always seems to find a way to be there on a Sunday afternoon and put in a top-10 finish, especially if he’s not on top of his game.
‘I also listened to an interview with Colin Montgomerie recently, and he said the reason he was able to win all those Order of Merit titles was that no matter what happened in the previous rounds of a tournament, when it came to a Sunday morning he’d wake up and go out with the mentality to shoot a score that would see him finish at least one position higher than when he started. That resonates with me.’
And that’s how Harding learns and evolves. He doesn’t ask so much as observe and listen.
‘I’m very much my own person. Sure, you have your conversations, and you take little bits here and there, and I have a few people I listen to. I’m always willing to learn, but I’m very much my own man and I follow my own path.’
It shows in the golfers he learns from.
‘I’m not really overly wowed by the flashy in golf – the guy who bombs it a mile. Sure, it’s fun to watch Bryson DeChambeau on the range because what he does is phenomenal. But I get more enjoyment out of the grinders. I’ve played with Rory McIlroy and watched how he grinds it out really well and keeps himself in with a chance. I love how Jordan Spieth manages to get a score on the board. I played with Xander Schauffele at The Masters. He’s another one in that mould, Cameron Smith too.
‘Look, I didn’t get the nickname Hack for nothing. I used to just go out and slap it around the course. But I could make a par or birdie from the trees. I think that’s been a bit of the beauty in my career that I pretty much found it on my own. I wasn’t fantastic early on. I wasn’t a phenom when I was 15. I just progressively got a little bit better.’
And consistency in this incremental progress is the new frontier to which Harding is working.
‘If I look at my recent progress, it’s been a decent couple of months. I’ve played a lot of good golf, but a few moments of bad golf have really cost me. I would’ve loved to have gotten over the line at the South African Open last year. I put myself in a great position to do so but hit one bad shot and didn’t really enjoy the rest of the round after that.
‘I’ve started this season strong, but the competitive nature in me wants to be better. There have been tournaments where I’ve felt in control but haven’t followed through, which is frustrating when you feel you were in with a chance to win. But it’s all there. It’s just a matter of putting the puzzle pieces together.
‘I feel like I’ve got a good overall game that can be competitive under most conditions, and I’m giving myself more and more chances. You’ve just got to keep knocking on the door.’
It’s a patient approach to a career where Harding unashamedly points out that he’s opting for longevity rather than the chiselled gym physique or power hitters of the modern game.
‘Golf is evolving. I played with Jason Dufner in Saudi Arabia and he made the comment that golf won’t see too many more of the likes of him or Matt Kuchar or Zach Johnson or Bernhard Langer on the PGA Tour in the future. Purely because the guys are coming out now and hitting it 350 and destroying golf courses. I do think the lifespan of a golfer will slowly decrease.
‘Those guys, and the likes of Miguel Angel Jimenez or even Ernie Els, could have the lifespan they’ve had in the game because they never put this great emphasis on pushing their body to the absolute limit all the time just to be able to hit it a country mile. But nowadays, there is so much money in golf that you’ll get guys coming out, earning their money fast, and within 10 years they can be set for life. The whole model of a career in golf is evolving. But I’m about longevity.’
Harding will keep evolving according to his own plan and vision. He’s started working with a new coach – Liam James, who works with a number of leading DP World Tour professionals. ‘I quite like the way things are moulding around all of this,’ he says of this process.
Back on a farm in Somerset West, in the heart of his community, the owners of Glen-Graze are equally happy with the continued evolution of Justin Harding.
And they have 19 rescue horses, 14 cats, 12 dogs, eight pigs, four donkeys, two cows, two sheep and two goats who are just as grateful.
20 BEST FINISHES
2014: Zambia Open (T2nd)
2016: Cape Town Open (T2nd)
2018: Royal Cup (1st), Indonesia Open (1st), Royal Swazi Open (1st), Asia-Pacific Diamond Cup Golf (2nd), Zambia Open (2nd), Lombard Insurance Classic (1st)
2019: Qatar Masters (1st), Magical Kenya Open (T2nd), The Masters (T12th), Dubai Desert Classic (T7th), ISPS Handa Vic Open (4th), Saudi International (T11th)
2020: British Masters (3rd), Andalucia Masters (T3rd)
2021: Magical Kenya Open (1st), Cazoo Open (2nd), The Open Championship (T19th)
2022: Dubai Desert Classic (T4th)
– This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!