Harding's hard yards pay off as he leads Dubai Desert Classic

Justin Harding of South Africa walks on the 13th hole during the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic. (AP)
Justin Harding of South Africa walks on the 13th hole during the second round of the Dubai Desert Classic. (AP)

By James Jose

Published: Fri 28 Jan 2022, 10:13 PM

In hindsight, Justin Harding’s decision to leave it for another day turned out to be a masterstroke.

With darkness enveloping the Majlis Course on Thursday, the South African was within striking distance for a birdie on his final hole. But with the darkness suspending play, his playing group were given the option to carry on or hold off for the next day. Harding decided to sleep over it, came back on Friday morning to close out the 18th to take a slice of the lead along with Joachim Brandt Hansen. And that served as the launchpad as the 35-year-old surged to take sole ownership of the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic.

World No.122 Harding, who had triumphed at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters in 2019, carded a four-under 68 on the day, including a superb eagle, for an overall 11-under 133.

Harding, who had two victories on the European Tour, now rebranded as the DP World Tour, holds a two-stroke lead over Englishman Tyrrell Hatton, heading into the third round, which is called ‘Moving Day.’

After putting the finishing touch to his first round which was dotted with eight birdies and a bogey, Harding came back an hour or so later to begin his second round and slotted four birdies, an eagle and two bogeys, en route. He began his second round with a birdie on the par-5 10th and followed it up with another birdie on the par-5 13th. Two bogeys on the par-3 15th and par-4 17th set him back a little bit but Harding bounced back with a birdie on the par-5 18th. He then made a birdie on the par-5 third before closing out his return sojourn with an eagle on the par-4 sixth.

Hatton, who won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship last year but was unable to defend it this year, finishing tied for sixth last week, shot a low 66 to vault 13 spots up the leaderboard, to lurk just behind Harding.

Hatton, a six-time winner on the Tour, reeled off seven birdies and a bogey in his six-under par 66 for an overall nine-under 135. He had a number of opportunities to close the gap to Harding, but the 30-year-old was unable to convert them to birdies.

Harding’s countryman Erik van Rooyen and Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti are tied third at eight-under.

Two-time Dubai champion Rory McIlroy too made the surge on the leaderboard, making 41 places, after carding a six-under 66 to be tied fifth with four others, including overnight leader Hansen, at seven-under.

Defending champion Englishman Paul Casey, who was struggling with some stiffness in his neck in the morning, shot a four-under 68 to be tied 10th at six-under along with compatriot Tommy Fleetwood, the 2017 Race to Dubai champion, and two others.

World No.2 Collin Morikawa had a day to forget, shooting just one birdie and two bogeys to finish one-over for the day, to drop 16 spots to tied 25th. The American frittered away the four-under he had shot in the opening round and is now three-under for the tournament.

India’s Shubhankar Sharma salvaged his round with a birdie on the 18th to finish on par to make the cut. Sharma, who has two wins on Tour, jumped nine places to be tied 49th.

The cut was applied at one-over and 81 players made it to the business end of the tournament.

“I made some putts, to be fair,” Harding said about the secret to his two low rounds.

“I’ve driven the ball well — I didn’t drive it that great yesterday (Thursday). I rolled the ball pretty well. For the most part, kept bogeys off the card. I hit the fairway on the longer, tougher par 4s.

“It was a good hard slog, the last couple holes played quite tough with the breeze. It was just a bonus there on six. Quite happy with two days of work.

“I’ve played this golf course well over the years. I had a good final round a couple years back and was in contention last year and played badly on the Sunday. My game seems to be close. It is just a matter if I can control the putter and make some putts, we are always going to be there and thereabouts, which is nice,” said Harding, who had shot a 63 to finish in the top 10 here in 2019.

Dubai-born Hill makes cut

Dubai-born amateur Josh Hill endured an atritional day but still managed to make the cut at the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic on Friday.

The tall 17-year-old carded a two-over 74 on the day. With the cut applied at one-over, Hill made the cut by virtue of finishing par overall, thanks to his two-under in the first round on Thursday.

Hill shot three birdies, two on the front nine and one his return journey, but it was the three bogeys and a double bogey on the front nine which ruined his round.

Nonetheless, Hill made it to the business end of his home event after finishing tied for 58th in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship last weekend.

Meanwhile, UAE amateur Ahmad Skaik shot a 12-over for a 15-over to miss the cut. The 24-year-old made two birdies, six bogeys and four double bogeys in the second round. He had shot three-over in the opening round.

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