Zurich Classic Golf

Justin Harding reacts as he tries to make the green from the 18th fairway during the third round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans at TPC Louisiana in Avondale on Saturday, April 27, 2019.

Regular PGA Tour victories tend to get drowned out by the majors, but in truth they are precious golf gems.

A total of 392 players made cuts to earn checks on the 2017-18 PGA Tour. Dozens more teed it up and failed to make the weekend. Only 36 of them won a tournament. If you get a victory you are exempt on the tour for the rest of this season and the next two. They can be career-changing mileposts.

Justin Harding is at such a point in his career. The 33-year-old from South Africa has rocketed up through the world rankings to No. 45 entering the Zurich Classic of New Orleans with a phenomenal five weeks.

He tied for 17th in the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin, Texas. In the Masters two weeks ago he flirted with the lead, just one stroke back at the 36-hole mark before tying for 12th.

Now he and fellow South African Branden Grace go into Sunday’s final round tied for first with the team of Jon Rahm and Ryan Palmer at 23-under park.

To borrow a line from the poker game scene in “Titanic,” somebody’s life is about to change.

It may be Harding’s.

Former Zurich champion Bubba Watson said after his first Masters win in 2012 “I never got this far in my dreams.” Harding can relate. He has tried to stay in the moment while his play has made him more and more celebrated, up 673 world ranking spots since January 2018.

“Things seem to be changing for me on a monthly basis recently,” Harding said, proving he’s as good at understatement as he is at making birdies.

Before this 2018-19 season, Harding had never played a PGA Tour event, spending most of his career toiling on tours in Africa and Asia in events like the Tshwane Open and Sun Fish River Challenge. Now a win will give him full status on the world’s richest tour through 2021. Heck, even a two-way tie for second will give him conditional status on the PGA Tour the rest of this season, allowing him to seek as many tournament invitations as he can get.

It is a big enough of a life leader board to give you vertigo if you think about it too long. So you can understand if Harding trains the focus on this momentous final round.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a goal,” Harding said of his PGA Tour status. “It was more just a matter of coming over and trying to do what I’ve been doing and seeing if the performances take me where I want to go. Obviously I had a fantastic week at Augusta, and I’m having another one this week with Gracie.”

The challenge is formidable. Harding and Grace are tied for the lead with world No. 11 Jon Rahm and Ryan Palmer. Nine other groups are within four strokes of the lead.

“It’s only going to happen if we play well and I continue to do my job,” Harding said.

It’s a lot on the line, but the treasure at the end of Sunday’s round could be incredible.


Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​