By JOHN HUGGAN
One by one they came. And one by one they failed. One-third of the sixth-to-last group in the fourth round of the Qatar Masters, Justin Harding had set the early(ish) target for those behind with a closing six-under par 66 over the windswept Doha Golf Club. Eight birdies highlighted the South African’s card – five of them in a back-nine 31 – that took him to 13-under par for the week.
By two shots, that was good enough. Not one of the 15 men following the eventual champion on the day could make the former Lamar University golfer sweat even a little. In the end, a remarkable nine of those chasing tied for second place – a number unprecedented on the European Tour – at 11 under the card.
For the record: Jinho Choi of South Korea, South Africans George Coetzee, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Erik Van Rooyen, Jorge Campillo and Nacho Elvira of Spain, Sweden’s Anton Karlsson, Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera and overnight leader Oliver Wilson of England made up the long list of runners-up.
All will surely look back with some regrets at the end of an ever-fluctuating day, but perhaps the most disappointed will be Wilson, whose poor driving let him down more than once during a closing 71. A Ryder Cup player back in 2008, Wilson is attempting to compete without full playing privileges on his home tour. Victory would have meant a second comeback for the man who won the 2014 Dunhill Links Championship to seemingly resurrect a career gone astray. Just two years later, however, Wilson lost his card again and, despite two victories on the Challenge Tour last year, he arrived in Qatar in similar circumstances.
Still, for all that Harding also arrived in the Gulf state without a European Tour card in his pocket. But the ultimate result was far from surprising. In his eight previous European Tour starts this season, the 33-year-old had recorded for top-11 finishes. Even more significantly, he had four times finished first during the past nine months – twice on the Sunshine Tour in his native land, twice more on the Asian Tour. On the basis that winning breeds winning, this was a (bigger) victory waiting to happen.
“This feels good,” said Harding, who picked up a cheque for €259,669. “It was nerve wracking, especially coming off a situation I haven’t really been in before. I didn’t enjoy it but I’m glad it happened and now we move on. I get into the events that I’d like to be playing in again. Schedules change, and I will no longer have to wait for last-minute spots to open up. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens going forward and playing in some bigger events.”
Australians Nick Cullen (T-14), Jake McLeod (T-20) and Min Woo Lee (T-20) each started the final round within two strokes of the lead, but none broke par on Sunday.