When Justin Harding shot -21 gross yesterday to win the Magical Kenya Open, two significant things happened in his life; first, he pocketed close to Kshs 17.5 million and secondly, he moved 74 places up in the World Golf Ranking, OWGR, to position 121.
It is not the first time the 35 year old South African is basking in glory, having won his maiden European Tour title in 2019 at the Qatar Masters, but it’s the way he went calmly about the business at Karen Country Club to wrest the title he narrowly missed in 2019.
His success can be mainly attributed to two factors- persistence and mental strength. Having tasted defeat on two occasions before, Harding came with a game plan which he executed with perfection. He started slowly staying outside the top 10 on day one, elbowed his way into contention in sixth place after the second round then seized leadership with a two stroke advantage in the penultimate round.
It is the way he went about protecting this two shot advantage in the final round that distinguished him from the chasing pack. In Kurt Kitayama, he was facing friendly fire from a playing partner and familiar foe who had trounced him at the 2019 Afrasia Bank Mauritius Open. A very experienced player having turned pro in 2010, Harding briefly showed signs of cracking under pressure on the back nine when he had to uncharacteristically scramble for par on four holes. But eventually, he triumphed.
“I’m very happy to have got over the line. Winning isn’t everything but I think being in the winner’s circle again means a little more to me than I thought it did. I think I’ve always had a good record as a front-runner and I think just putting myself in a position and ultimately just trying to get the job done. I was trying to be a little bit more relaxed and not put as much pressure on myself. Ultimately, I was just happy with the way I executed my shots down the line. I was just happy with the way I managed it. Credit to Kurt because he’s an unbelievable competitor. Him and I have gone head-to-head a couple of times and I’m happy to have got it even,” said an elated Harding.
Harding has not had a great start to the season this year and so a podium finish, let alone winning, was not on his mind. In the last five events, he has missed the cut once his best finish being T27 position at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. This, a stark contrast in the form he enjoyed in 2019 that saw him win the Qatar Masters, finish second at Magical Kenya Open, exploits that saw him break into the top 50 ranking in the OWGR, earning him a ticket to The Masters where he finished T12. He however says he has regained confidence at the right time.
“I wouldn’t say I was in a slump but I was in a dip in form in terms of mixed results and it was nice to get over the line this time around. I haven’t been in it for so long, so it’s just nice to enjoy the feeling again. I’m happy to have got what I felt like I needed out of an event. I think for the last couple of weeks before that I think the game has been decent but I just haven’t really posted the results. Confidence is a strange thing. It feels like I’m playing with it but I haven’t really posted the results you feel like you should be doing, so it’s difficult to really gauge where your game is at. I’m happy with the way I executed my game plan, I’m happy with my mental techniques and the way I managed myself on the golf course. It feels like my game is in decent enough shape. I feel like I’m rolling it nicely on the greens, I holed out nicely so it’s just a case of really just giving yourself some chances and seeing how many you can take,” he said.
The short and tricky Karen course, he says, suits perfectly his playing style. Having played at Karen before, Harding says this time he came with a well-thought out game plan that saw him better on his previous performances.
“It was nice to come back to a place that I have fond memories of. I know Guido beat me by a shot here a couple of years ago and I felt like I played the golf course well and it is set up nicely for me. I’ve been saying to the guys all week that I think it is one of the fairest golf courses. It’s just a fun golf course; you can make a bunch of birdies, you can make bunch of eagles and you can throw in some bogeys there as well. It’s just lovely to play,” said Harding.
Interestingly, despite playing more than 4,000kms away from home and at a slightly higher altitude, Harding says playing in Kenya always feels like being at home. This, he says, boosts his confidence a lot a situation that is made even better by the huge contingent of South Africans who always play at Kenya Open. This year 15 South Africans participated in the event with only three missing the cut. Six of them finished in the top 20.
Said Harding: “Funny enough, there was actually quite a lot of South African feel this week. We’ve obviously had a lot of South African golfers come out as a lot of Sunshine Tour golfers get invites as well, so it was nice to see them. The nomads, the guys working out on the scoring, they’re guys I’ve known for donkey years as well and it was just nice to have them clap and cheer me on. It was almost like a home away from home. I’m just happy with the opportunity and taking advantage of it.”
Switching gears to tomorrow’s Kenya Savannah Classic, Harding will be hoping that contrary to the laws of nature, lightening will strike at Karen twice in succession. The inaugural event which is fully sponsored by the European Tour will feature the same players who took part in Magical Kenya Open. He is optimistic that he can add a third title on the Tour though he’s cautious that competition will be stiffer owing to the state of the course and the players’ new-found familiarity with the course.
“It’s an unprecedented turnaround, I don’t think we’ve ever really played eight rounds on the same golf course in eight days so I’m going to try and keep the same sort of mojo going and hope that it continues. Obviously the scores were as low as they were at Kenya Open because it’s a bit softer than it’s been in the past. I know two years ago when Guido won the greens were very, very firm and the fairways as well, it was a struggle to actually keep them in it and it made scoring obviously a little bit more difficult. If it continues to rain then I can only see the golf course giving up a few more birdies. At the same time, hopefully the rough grows a little bit and it just creates a different challenge. It’s the type of golf course where if you are playing from the fairway you’re going to give yourself a lot of birdie looks and the greens look to me like they’re holding up after what is a week of traffic. I’m looking forward to it, I think it’s going to be another good week,” Harding who broke the 19 year old -19 winning score record summed it up.