South Africa really does churn out European Tour winners, the latest addition to the list being Justin Harding. Playing without a card for the circuit, he became the fifth player from the Rainbow Nation to win the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters. Home in 31 for a closing 66, the 33-year-old finished two shots ahead of no fewer than nine players – a record on the European Tour – at windswept Doha Golf Club.
The victory is set to lift Harding to 51st in the world rankings, tantalisingly close to securing an unexpected Masters invitation. He was outside the top 700, after all, just over a year ago. But this was his fifth title triumph in ten months, two wins apiece on the Sunshine Tour and Asian Tour provided the springboard for the biggest success of his career.
“It’s fantastic. It’s still sinking in,” admitted Harding after joining Ernie Els, Darren Fichardt, Retief Goosen and Branden Grace as South African winners of the Mother of Pearl trophy. For the record, Grace claimed it twice, back-to-back in 2015 and 2016. “I didn’t quite think it was enough, I thought there might be a play-off, but I’m really happy,” he added. “I’ve been knocking on the door a little recently. It’s rewarding seeing the hard graft and change in mindset – seeing what’s involved and what’s going on.”
Harding was three shots off the lead, held by Englishman Oliver Wilson, at the start of the day and, although he birdied three of the first four holes, bogeys at the sixth and seventh looked to have derailed his title challenge. However, he birdied the tenth, 12th, 15th, 17th and 18th in a storming back nine to post a clubhouse target that no-one was able to match.
“I had to stay patient,” he added. “I got off to a good start, made a couple of birdies and lost my head around the turn. But my caddie said we’re still in it. I thought there would be a play-off with how scores were looking on the back nine, but I’m happy to get over the line.”
He’d chalked up four top-11 finishes in eight previous starts on the European Tour this season. He’d been relying on top tens earlier in the year to play from week to week, but not anymore. An exemption means his card has been secured. It’s onwards and upwards after joining the likes of Brandon Stone, Dylan Frittelli, Dean Burmester and Haydn Porteous to roll off that South African conveyor belt of winners over the past two or three seasons.
Wilson, bidding to land his first win on the circuit in more than four years, had to settle for second after a closing 71. He finished alongside three of Harding’s compatriots included George Coetzee, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Erik Van Rooyen, as well as Spaniards Jorge Campillo and Nacho Elvira, Swede Anton Karlsson, Frenchman Mike Lorenzo Vera and Korean Jinho Choi.
Two birdies in the last three holes helped Bob MacIntyre finish as top Scot in joint-31st on five-under, two shots ahead of Liam Johnston (72) and Scott Jamieson (74). It was a sore weekend for Richie Ramsay as two 76s left him in a tie for 69th with Grant Forrest (74) on two-over.