South Africa’s Justin Harding chipped in for a birdie on the 18th hole that gave him a wonderful 63 and a one-stroke lead after the first round of the Tshwane Open, co-sanctioned by the European and Sunshine tours, at Pretoria Country Club on Thursday.
The Somerset West golfer has not had a great summer out on the course, missing the cut in the three previous co-sanctioned events – the Joburg and SA Opens and the Alfred Dunhill Championship – so the chip-in was the cherry on top of a round that restored a lot of belief for the golfer, who turned 30 on Tuesday.
“I was quite jammy on the last, I chipped in from a position that was otherwise not very good, so that was a lekker way to finish the day. I’m super-chuffed, I’ve been struggling the last few events so it’s a confidence boost, absolutely. I felt like I hit it quite nicely, swing-wise it’s always been there or thereabouts,” Harding said after his round.
Harding was one of the golfers who had to change putters following the rule change that outlawed anchoring, and he said he feels like he is coming to terms now with that change.
“The short putter is moving in the right direction, I wouldn’t say it’s quite there yet but it’s definitely getting better week-by-week, so hopefully we’ll see that continue. I’ve just been a bit wonky in terms of posture, so it’s just been about getting a little bit more comfortable over the ball and giving myself the opportunity to make better swings and attack some flags,” Harding said.
Pretoria Country Club may be one of the shorter courses on the European Tour – at 6830 yards she has been downgraded to a par-70 for this event – but she has hidden dangers as the scoreboard showed with only 22 of the 155-man field managing to break par.
“I personally didn’t find it all that easy,” Harding said. “It’s one of those awkward little courses where you still have to be accurate. It may be short, but you still have to put the ball into position. There is enough slope on the greens so that you are going to have some tricky putts and you can’t really take advantage of par-fives either, they’re quite long.”
Second-placed Anthony Michael, who teed off in the afternoon, said he would take his 64 and run even though it left him a stroke behind Harding.
“I saw Hack [Harding] at seven-under and I said to my caddie it must be playing a little bit easier, which seemingly wasn’t the case. Ag, I’m really happy with six-under and we’ll take it and run. It is quite tricky out there, it’s one of those risk-and-rewards courses. You can bomb Driver around this course and possibly shoot a low score, but in the same breath, if you’re not on your game, you’re going to be in lots of trouble,” Michael said.
The 30-year-old Michael, still searching for his first professional win, said his game-plan called for a lot of irons off the tee.
“I’m hitting a lot of irons off the tee. I’m hitting my long-irons well so I don’t mind coming in with a five or six-iron into some of these par-fours. I’m eliminating the risk of hitting Driver into the trouble, so hitting to the flats of the fairways is a big thing for me now,” Michael said.
Theunis Spangenberg was third after a 65, but could have been going into the second round as the joint leader were it not for a silly approach shot on the par-four 10th that was off-target, finished in a bad lie and led to a double-bogey.
Jaco van Zyl shot a 66 and Merrick Bremner a 67 as South Africans filled the top five places after the first round.
Van Zyl started on the 10th and had two bogeys in his first five holes, but then collected five birdies without dropping a shot.
“It was solid, just two bogeys, one of which was a bit silly, but I made my fair share of putts out there and I kept the ball in play. It is playing longer than last year, the ball is not really rolling out at all. But the rough is a bit patchy, so if you miss a fairway you could still get away with it. But it’s a lot of irons and three-woods off the tee-boxes,” Van Zyl said.
Defending champion George Coetzee was in a tie for sixth after a 68, while Joburg Open champion Haydn Porteous was hard-hit by three successive bogeys from the 16th hole after starting at the 10th. He then dropped another shot on the first and had a double-bogey on the par-four fourth, but managed to complete his round with three successive birdies, signing for a 70.
It was also a tough day for Charl Schwartzel and Brandon Stone, who both shot 71s.
Schwartzel was struggling on the greens and went out from the 10th hole with eight pars and a bogey on the par-four 13th. A pair of birdies on the second and third holes was then cancelled out by bogeys on the fifth and sixth.
Stone was in the same three-ball and was solid enough on his first nine holes, picking up a shot at the par-four 17th, but was off his game coming home, with three bogeys and just one birdie courtesy of a lengthy putt from the fringe on the fourth hole.
Of the other young guns, Zander Lombard was on two-over-par and Christiaan Bezuidenhout was in danger of missing the cut after opening with a 74, alongside the more experienced Trevor Fisher Junior, whose round was ruined by five successive bogeys from the fourth hole.