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After winning small events, Harding makes most of big stage

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Justin Harding of South Africa spent most of his Masters debut atop the leaderboard. He's used to leading, but not on a stage like Augusta National. No one in the field can claim five victories and three runner-up finishes since the last Masters. Those performances came in smaller events in places like Qatar and Kenya.

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Justin Harding of South Africa spent most of his Masters debut Thursday atop the leaderboard, and that's not an unusual position for him over the past year.

No one else at Augusta National can claim five victories and three runner-up finishes since the last Masters. Then again, few Masters competitors were in the Lombard Insurance Open or the Royal Swazi Open.

The biggest win of his career so far was the Masters — in Qatar, not Georgia. Harding moved into the top 50 of the world ranking to secure his first Masters invitation with a runner-up finish in the Kenya Open.

"I handled the emotions of the day quite well," Harding said after opening with a 3-under 69.

And for one day, it was a reminder that winning anywhere in the world means a player is doing something right.

He stood out as an example of why the PGA Tour believes some other tours might be getting too many world ranking points based on weaker fields. This has nothing to do with Harding. All he has done is play tournaments, and the 33-year-old who competed collegiately at Lamar outside Houston is playing the best golf of his life.

He ended 2017 at No. 712 in the world. He goes into the Masters at No. 49.

In the last year, he has won twice on the Sunshine Tour (one was a 54-hole event), twice on the Asian Tour and once on the European Tour (Qatar Masters).

He made his American debut two weeks ago in the Dell Match Play, and while he didn't advance out of his group, he managed to beat Matt Fitzpatrick and Luke List, while losing to Rory McIlroy.

Most of these courses are new to him, just like Augusta National.

So when Harding was reminded of his rookie status at the Masters, and how it has been 40 years since a newcomer won a green jacket, he wasn't bothered.

"It's pretty much how I've been playing for the last 15 months," Harding said. "I'm seeing the golf course for the first time almost every week. So I'm not taking any real demons, any bad shots or any bad memories into them, I suppose."

He knows Augusta National a little better from watching the Masters over the years. He has an idea how to attack or avoid certain pins.

"We executed our plan and played away from flags when we needed to, counted on a good putter, and that certainly worked for the most part today," he said.

Only one of his five birdies came on a par 5, at No. 15, and it required a wedge off a severe slope and to about 7 feet, which he rapped in with his long putter. He dropped a shot on the beefy par-4 fifth and at the last when he failed to get up-and-down from a bunker.

"At the end of the day you're going to make some mistakes out here," he said. "Nobody really goes bogey-free. It's just a matter of making more birdies than bogeys and seeing what happens over the weekend."

Gary Player (three times), Charl Schwartzel and Trevor Immelman are the other South Africans to win a green jacket. Harding sought some advice from Ernie Els, who had to settle for the silver medal twice at Augusta. He also played practice rounds — nine holes a day because of the rain — with Schwartzel, Branden Grace, Louis Oosthuizen and British Amateur champ Jovan Rebula.

"Just trying to pick the big boys' brains and it's just helpful," he said. "We played the golf course in our brains a few times having watched it on TV. You know where to hit it. It's just a matter of handling the nerves and executing the golf shots."

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