He won his first professional title as a Sunshine Tour rookie in 2010, and now Justin Harding is getting ready to tee it up in the 142nd Open Championship at Muirfield on Thursday.
The 27-year-old Stellenbosch Golf Club professional earned his spot in the Open by winning the International Final Qualifying event for Africa at Royal Johannesburg and Kensington in March after the Tshwane Open by three strokes from Spain’s Eduardo de la Riva and another two from Darryn Lloyd.
“I’m so happy to get through – there are about 70 players here and a lot of them have won tournaments, both on the European and Sunshine Tours and to get one of only three spots is incredible,” he said when he qualified.
“All of us as youngsters watched the Open and I’m really looking forward to my first major. With Ernie Els defending it will be a special one, and I’ve heard that Muirfield is a phenomenal place, so everything feels perfect right now,” he said.
And as he makes his way around the course in a practice round on Tuesday in the company of George Coetzee, he’ll be attempting to draw on his compatriot’s 2011 experience when Coetzee came 15th behind Darren Clarke.
He’s had a quiet year after winning once each in 2010, 2011 and 2012 on the Sunshine Tour, but three top-10s in his last five tournaments – fourth in the Lombard Insurance Classic, 10th in the Vodacom Origins of Golf event at Simola, and second in the Polokwane Classic – have given him signs of encouragement going into the challenge posed by Muirfield.
He’s currently 31st on the Sunshine Tour Order of Merit, having played 14 tournaments, and he will be hoping the Open gives him the kind of impetus to improve on his 26th-place finish in 2012, especially since he hasn’t been outside the top 50 since he turned professional.
He’s also sixth in the Chase to the Investec Cup for 2014, and he’ll want to stay in the hunt for that and it’s big pay-day as the summer of 2014 comes to a close.
For now, his energies are all focused on Muirfield: “To play in the Open is an experience every golfer wants to have. I don’t really have words for it, but I’m sure it will be special,” he said ahead of his trip to Scotland.