Justin Harding made a spectacular eagle to light up a “grinding” 68 as he took a two-shot lead into the weekend at the 2022 Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic.
The South African had to return to complete his opening round on day two and birdied the last to take a share of the 18-hole lead before a hole-out from 183 yards on the par-four sixth in round two helped him hit the front at 11 under, two clear of four-time Rolex Series champion Tyrrell Hatton.
Harding is a two-time winner on the DP World Tour but is yet to star in a Rolex Series event, with last week’s tie for 25th at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship matching his best finish.
The 35-year-old has proven he can go low at Emirates Golf Club, carding a 63 en route to a top-ten finish in 2019, and is hoping he can recreate that magic after falling away over the weekend last season.
South African Erik van Rooyen and Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti were then at eight under, one ahead of Ryder Cup team-mates Viktor Hovland and Rory McIlroy, England’s Richard Bland, Dane Joachim B. Hansen and Pole Adrian Meronk.
Defending champion Paul Casey was then in all-English group at six under alongside Marcus Armitage, Tommy Fleetwood, Sam Horsfield and Lee Westwood.
Justin Harding: “Made some putts, to be fair. I’ve driven the ball well, I didn’t drive it that great yesterday. Hit it in the sand rather than the rough and makes it a bit easier. I rolled the ball pretty good. For the most part, kept bogeys off the card.
“Hit the fairway on the longer, tougher par fours. Ultimately just grinding. It was a grind of a day today to be fair. Just bonus there on 6.
“I’ve played this golf course well over the years. Had a good final round a couple years back and was in contention last year and played badly on the Sunday. I can’t really say the golf course – it’s just one of those where you just have to get through it.
“I played quite nicely last week. Barring a bad finish, would have been a top ten result. Game seems to be close. 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.”
Tyrrell Hatton: “Happy with that. Didn’t get off to a great start with a bogey on the first hole, battled back from there and played a lot of good golf today and hope that can continue into the weekend. I gave myself plenty of opportunities most of the day and putted lovely. Holed a couple of good par putts when I needed to, and yeah, momentum was on my side today.
“I’ve had good results in the past and the course has been pretty good to me over the years and played pretty well last week. Game feels like it’s in a pretty good spot, so see how we go.
“It would be pretty special to win this tournament. I remember when I was at school, waking up early in the morning to start watching it, and it’s always been a tournament that growing up I wanted to play in. I think this is my eighth time here, and the event has been pretty kind to me with some pretty good finishes over the years. Hoping I can have a strong weekend and add to that.”
Erik van Rooyen: “Very pleased, very clean. Besides that one bunker shot on eight, very, very good golf, so extremely pleased.
“It’s what we play for, right, to be in contention, especially in these Rolex events. I’m happy that the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic is one as well. Can’t wait for Sunday.”
Fabrizio Zanotti: “Really, really happy to be there, to be in contention for the weekend. That was the idea. So, I am very happy with the plan I make.
“I feel like last year, I finished with a lot of confidence with my golf swing, and this year I came the same way. Last week was a little freaky with the wind on the golf course, but this week, I put it back and I feel confident again with my swing.
“It’s always, always a great tournament, and always we enjoy a lot to come and play here in Dubai. And now this tournament as a Rolex Series, I think it’s much better, so it’s really good.”
Rory McIlroy: “Could have been way lower. I certainly hit the ball well enough for it to be lower. I missed a few opportunities, but with the way these new greens are, they get a bit chewed up in the afternoons and start to wiggle a little bit if there’s not a lot of speed on them but they are pretty quick as well and you don’t want to be giving them too much of a run at the hole.
“So yeah, I certainly hit the ball as good as I’ve done in a long time, and it could have been a few better but 66 this afternoon is a good score and sets me up for a nice weekend.
“With how I ended last year, I certainly found something. Got a bit of momentum. Won on the PGA TOUR, had a really good chance to win here in Dubai at the end of last season. It feels good. There’s so many ebbs and flows in this game and the career is so long that it’s sort of hard to compare one year to the next and how you’re feeling and how you’re hitting it.”