AUGUSTA, Ga. — The golfing gods reached into the muck and the mire of rain-soaked Augusta National Golf Club on Friday, and they decreed there be a star-spangled leaderboard at the midway point of the Masters.
There are major champions galore, five of them tied for the lead: Francesco Molinari, Brooks Koepka, Jason Day, Adam Scott and Louis Oosthuizen. There are two more among the group just one shot back — the star of stars, Tiger Woods, and Dustin Johnson — and big names like Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson lurking two and three strokes behind.
Then there is Justin Harding.
Some athletes are so obscure, even they haven’t heard of themselves. “Some people just don't belong belong,” as Judge Smails said with an arched patrician’s eyebrow in the classic golf movie “Caddyshack.”
Harding’s place among the legends on this leaderboard is scarcely to be believed. But that’s OK. This 33-year-old Masters rookie, who played his collegiate golf at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, can scarcely believe it himself.
“Look,” Harding said after a second straight 69 left him one off the lead at 6 under par, “it still gives me the giggles just being here. I’m trying to enjoy it the best I can.
“I’ve got a couple of friends out here. The family is out watching as well. We’re just having a nice time and enjoying the birdies. Yeah, hope for sunshine and a good weekend.”
Harding said he was even happy to have been passed by that fivesome of co-leaders, like a bunch of high-pressure businessmen trying to cram in a three-hour round. Harding just says, Go right ahead. I’m going to play an extra ball or two and work on my short game.
Even finishing with a bogey on 18 Friday didn't faze him much.
“I’m probably going to sleep a little better now that I’m not leading,” he said.
Let the other blokes stress out on the pressure of contending for a major championship. Harding can tell them about real pressure. The pressure of trying to eke out a living while keeping your dreams alive on the off-off-Broadway tours, like the Sunshine Tour in his native South Africa and the Asian.
“A year ago I was playing in Zambia on the Sunshine Tour,” Harding said.
That would be the Zanaco Masters. True story. Harding missed the cut in that one, but he didn’t exactly miss out on a windfall. The total prize money for the whole field was the equivalent of something like $143,000.
The Zanaco Masters aside, Harding’s career took off last year. He began 2018 ranked 718th in the world but won four times in a six-tournament span to crack the top 100. He won again last month in the European Tour’s Qatar Masters and got himself in the WGC-Dell World Match play two weeks ago in Austin, Texas. Harding tied for 17th to rank 48th in the world, which got him into this Masters tournament based on his top-50 status.
“I’ve been playing well,” Harding said. “It was just going to be a matter of me executing golf shots and handling emotions. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of that thus far.”
So here he is. Here comes Harding. Taking the course for Saturday’s third round in the fourth-to-last paring among the Tigers and the Dustin Johnsons and fellow countryman Oosthuizen, armed with advice from another South African golfing star, four-time major winner Ernie Els.
Els told Harding to stay out of Rae’s Creek on the 12th hole.
“You take the bits and pieces,” Harding said. “You kind of want to play the golf course your own way. But you learn from others.”
There will be plenty of accomplished others to learn from Saturday. All Harding has to do is look about him.
The odds say he won’t win, won’t finish ahead of all those shiny names. The Masters is the tournament of legends.
Except sometimes the modest man slips into the green jacket. Players like Tommy Aaron, Gay Brewer and Charles Coody. They were less-accomplished contemporaries of champions like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, but their jackets are just as green.
“I probably wouldn’t have believed you, no,” Harding said when asked what he would have thought before the tournament about being one off the 36-hole lead. “I’m at least giving myself a chance.”
Sometimes, a chance is all it takes.