A Sunshine Tour professional was thinking back to a year ago when he sat with Justin Harding after both had missed the cut to play in a tournament in Zambia. Harding was ranked 422nd in the world at the time.
A year later, he is 45th in the world, has played in his first Masters – finishing 12th – and is this year’s golf fairy tale. And, suddenly, this pro and many others are starting to believe in the impossible.
Harding’s rise, which even Ernie Els calls “an incredible story”, has done more than just boost his own career – it’s given his entire generation of golfers the belief that they can achieve something similar.
In his rookie season as a full European Tour member, Louis de Jager said: “Justin has achieved a lot lately and that gives me more inspiration and the confidence to know I can do it as well. We came through the same era, and played amateur golf together and turned professional around the same time. So it gives you the belief you can do the same.”
Erik van Rooyen is showing similar signs of being inspired, having recently come close to a maiden European Tour triumph with a second-place finish in the Trophee Hassan II. This follows his second place in the Qatar Masters and sixth in the Indian Open.
Respected sports psychologist Theo Bezuidenhout has worked with many of the country’s leading young professionals, including multiple European Tour winner Brandon Stone and reigning Sunshine Tour Order of Merit winner Zander Lombard.
He is also the high-performance psychologist for GolfRSA’s elite amateurs, and says that what Harding has achieved is a powerful motivator for this generation of South African golfers.
“It’s absolutely fascinating to see how the other professionals have watched his journey and thought to themselves: ‘If he can, so can we.’
“It’s one of the best things that could happen to this group of players. There are now some players out there thinking it’s not as big a step up from the Sunshine Tour to the European Tour to the Majors as they might have thought. Judging from personal conversations I’ve had with my clients, it’s been a massive source of inspiration for other professionals on the Sunshine Tour,” said Bezuidenhout.
He likens it to what Louis Oosthuizen’s victory in the 2010 Open did for his close friend Charl Schwartzel.
“When Louis won the Open, it definitely inspired Charl Schwartzel to win the Masters in 2011. These players grow up together and compete against one another from an early age. As sport psychologists, we always try to bring out the best in performance and you’re always trying to use examples in the game. Those examples are very powerful when it’s in their own peer group.”
Bezuidenhout said he was also seeing a similar groundswell throughout the elite amateur ranks in South African golf.
“What’s happening is a lot of our young players are now putting their hands up. We are very lucky in that our amateurs, through GolfRSA’s programmes, can be very competitive all year round.
"They play with professionals on the IGT Tour or the Sunshine Tour on great courses. So they have opportunities. The whole picture is now coming together to create this perfect environment.
“Even at Under-13, Under-15, Under-17 and Under-19 level, you’re looking at four or five really good players in each generation. It’s no longer just one or two. And you just need one player to be successful in those generations to really drive a movement. I think we’re going to see a lot more Justin Hardings in the next five to 10 years.”
De Jager certainly believes his generation’s time has come.
“I think my generation of players is really starting to peak now. I think the best is still to come and I believe we’ll have a whole lot of South Africans in the top 50 and even the top 10 in the world in the next 10 years,” De Jager said.