AUGUSTA, GA. – Justin Harding spent much of Thursday at the top of the Masters leaderboard. If that seems like a strange place to find him, consider the strange path he took to make his Masters debut.
Since last year’s PGA Championship, the South African has played in Australia, China, Dubai, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Malaysia, Mauritius, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.
He surged while traveling, qualifying for the Masters by climbing into the top 50 of the World Golf Rankings. A year ago, he was playing in the Zanaco Masters in Zambia. Thursday, he found himself briefly tied for the lead at the Not-Zanaco Masters in Augusta, Ga.
He birdied the difficult first hole. “I wanted to stop after one,” he joked.
Instead, using a long putter, he birdied the first, third, sixth, 15th and 17th holes to shoot a 69.
“I’ll take it and run if I can — we’re not allowed to run here at Augusta,” Harding said. “But I’m pleased.”
With most of the tourney’s big-name players teeing off in the late morning or the afternoon, the early leaderboard looked like something from the Web.com tour. Harding’s 69 held up well even once the world’s best started attacking the back-nine par 5s.
Harding was ranked 712th in the world at the end of the 2017 season. He has won five times since, including a victory at the Qatar Masters last month, giving him his first title on the European Tour.
When he finished second at an event in Kenya last month, he moved from No. 85 into the top 50, making him one of the last players to qualify for the Masters.
He doesn’t always get to play in places that offer pimento cheese sandwiches.
Harding has won on the Sunshine Tour and on the Asian Tour, and says managing his nerves and aggressiveness helped him become a winner — and helped him on Thursday.
“I handled the emotions of the day quite well, better than expected, and, yeah, just kind of worked my way in,” he said.
A slew of big-name players passed him in the afternoon, leaving him in a massive tie for sixth at 3 under par. “It’s pretty much how I’ve been playing for the last, let’s call it, 15 months,” he said. “I’m seeing the golf course for the first time almost every week. So I’m not taking any real demons, any bad shots or bad memories into them, I suppose.”
He bogeyed the 18th, calling that result “naughty.” The rest of his round, his golf ball was quite well-behaved.