Justin Harding had a target on his back and was hunted all day but the South African was unflustered, coming away unscathed and still in the pink of health on ‘Pink Saturday’ at the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic.
As has been the tradition over the years, the day is marked as ‘Pink Saturday,’ in support of breast cancer awareness. Overnight leader Harding was put on a red alert by English duo Tyrrell Hatton and Lee Westwood, who jostled for the lead. But the 35-year-old from Durban kept it tidy to take a two-stroke lead going into the final round at the Majlis Course on Sunday.
Harding shot a one-under on the day that had two birdies and a bogey for a 12-under par. But it is a slender cushion that he holds as a strong chasing pack lurks, headed by none other than the two-time Dubai winner himself — Rory McIlroy.
The Northern Irishman kept it steady on the day despite encountering a few hiccups along the way. The three-time Race to Dubai champion carded a three-under, which also included an eagle on the 549-yard par-5 10th, and is two adrift of Harding, while Harding’s countryman Erik van Rooyen and England’s Tommy Fleetwood, are three shots further back.
Hatton, Harding’s playing partner, had reined in South African, or so he thought, after taking a slice of the lead and then nudging in front, outright. But Hatton fluffed the lines on the back nine, firing two bogeys and a double bogey, on the 190-yard par-3 15th, to hand the ownership back to Harding. It was not the end to the day he had envisaged, closing out at one-over, to be tied fifth at eight-under.
“I’m quite happy. I thought I played quite solidly,” Harding said after his round.
“It was a difficult day to be fair, and it had some tough legs to get at. There were times when I didn’t quite put the ball in play, and I couldn’t really go anywhere near them. The one bogey made was from long range with the putter, a bit disappointing but I would have loved to have snuck one coming in, 17 or 18, but I was happy with those,” he added.
Harding, winner of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters in 2019, is on the threshold of winning his first Rolex Series event. But he isn’t getting carried away.
“It’s a pretty big field. Look, at the end of the day, I’ve just got to go out and keep doing what I’m doing, and make a couple birdies and shoot 70, 69, something like that, and make them shoot 5- or 6-under par, credit to them. It is just another day at the office, really, to be fair,” said Harding, who has fired 14 birdies, an eagle and just four bogeys so far.
Meanwhile, Ryan Fox, son of legendary All Blacks rugby union star Grant Fox, fired the first hole-in-one of this year’s edition.
Teeing off with China’s Ashun Wu and France’s Victor Perez, Fox aced the 175-yard, par-three fourth hole with a majestic nine iron.
“That was as good a shot as I could have hit on four, it was nice to see it go in but to be honest I would have been just as excited if it had been a birdie putt, given the start I had just had,” said Fox.
“It was the perfect number for a nine iron for me, I tried to hit left and use the slope and I got the shot I wanted — quite surprising after the first three holes! There was a fair bit of luck but it was the shot I wanted to hit,” added the 35-year-old, who had led his team to victory in the Pro-Am.
Meanwhile, McIlroy was pleased with his day in office.
“I did well. I could have been maybe a bit better but could have been a bit worse as well. I didn’t try to take on too much. Overall, I thought I did well, and you know, in a good position going into tomorrow (Sunday),” said McIlroy.
“It would be nice. It would be nice to get another win, especially here in Dubai. But it’s obviously nice to get a win anywhere early in the season. So, I’ve just got to go out there tomorrow (Sunday) and try to play a good round of golf and hopefully it’s good enough,” he added.
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