Summer Champion: Tom Harding
By Terry Moore
Sleep doesn't always come easy for final round leaders. There's a tendency to fret and worry about the day to come, imagining all sorts of disasters and Air Force One hijackings to bewitch one's march to a title -- a title that could well open some new doors for an aspiring pro with a young family. To compound the anxiety factor, what if the player had never even teed it up on the course where the championship would be decided? And what if the player was competing for a prestigious title and the highest first check of $20,000 for a club pro in the state. There's not enough Melatonin, Zantac, or even Asst.-Prozac to swallow, my friend. Case in point: Tom Harding, an assistant pro at Egypt Valley CC, vying for the Tournament of Champions crown at Boyne Mountain in July.
Harding, arguably the most under-rated player in the Michigan PGA Section, led the T of C by one shot going into the final round of the unique 54-hole event which draws champions of all ages and both sexes from PGA-sanctioned events in Michigan. His 8-under-par 36-hole total of 136 (69-67) put him a stroke ahead of Steve Brady and Agim Bardha with always dangerous Tom Gillis three shots back. Trouble was, Harding never had played a single round on the tricky Monument course, where local knowledge is considered essential. And to top it off, Harding had only played on Alpine course (the venue for the first 36 holes) a few times before, too -- say like 20 years ago as a Boyne junior golf camper!
"Yes, I must admit I didn't sleep well the night before that final round," said the 33-year-old Harding, a native of Gull Lake. "I worried about the 11th hole all night it seemed. I had no clear idea what to do on the tee." The 368 yard 11th on the Monument is a tight, dank par-four that requires an accurate shot off the tee. "I had just come off the last hole with a disappointing par on a par five so I wasn't focused." Fulfilling his worst nightmare, Harding hit his 3-iron dead right -- 20 yards into the woods.
"I really thought I lost the tournament right there, that's what was racing through my mind," said Harding who qualified for the event by winning the PGA/VA Open in Battle Creek. But this time the nightmare woke up the dreamer and good things happened. Harding managed to find his ball and then pulled off a Seve-inspired wedge shot out of maximum security to the safe confines of the fairway. Where a double bogey or worse was seemingly in store only a few minutes before, Harding walked off the 11th with a damage-controlled bogey five and still in the championship.
Fortunately, the PGA-Section officials deemed the 12th and not the 11th to commence a playoff, for two hours later Harding was going mano-to-mano with an old rival to decide the championship. A final round 70 by Tom Gillis, mini-tour player and past Michigan Open champion who had beaten Harding a few years back in the Jamaica Open, set up the sudden-death playoff. After exchanging pars on 12, Harding claimed the title when Gillis three-putted from the fringe for bogey after Harding had made a good up-and-down save for par. "It wasn't pretty, especially on the back nine, but it was prettier than the others," described Harding of his last round dramatics.
Even before his Boyne breakout, Harding's golf resume was noteworthy. Although he went to Michigan State to play baseball, Harding ended up as a walk-on for the Spartans' golf team. With Boyne USA's Steve Kircher coincidentally as a teammate, he compiled a fine collegiate record, finishing third as a senior in the Big Ten Championship. He played on the Nike Tour for three years, played in Asia (where he found his trusty persimmon Honma three-wood), and tried unsuccessfully seven times to earn his PGA Tour card. He even cut his teeth on the Canadian PGA Tour for three years, winning the 1991 Canadian PGA over a strong field. "The Canadian PGA victory proved to me all my hard work was not in vain," said Harding. "I also proved to myself that I belonged out here as a player." This summer, Harding tied for eight in the Michigan Open and lost the Assistant's Championship in a playoff to Dearborn's Mark Zelazny.
But as good as ball-striker Harding is, few might've given him low odds to win at Boyne. If there is a small chink in his formidable golf armor, it may rest with his putter. "People who usually play with me will often tell me, 'Gee, you had so many close putts that didn't go in.'
"But this week it was totally putting that made the difference," said Harding. "When I would miss a putt, it'd be no more than a foot from the hole." And here's a real surprise: In a Tiger-like performance, Harding never had a three-putt over the 54 holes at Boyne Mountain that many rank as possessing some of the most confounding greens in the state. "Yeah, go figure," chuckled Harding. And to brighten the tale even further, Harding used his wife's back-up putter, a Ping Anser 2, to conquer Boyne Mountain's slippery slopes. Tom's wife is a fine player in her own right, so please no sexist snickers about that borrowed blade. Joal Reider Harding is a former All-America golfer at Auburn who's played on the LPGA Tour and is now a part-time teaching professional and full-time proud Mom of six-month old daughter Caroline.
And that leads us to the inevitable question of what the future holds for the 1997 Tournament of Champions winner. Well, after moving six times in the last three years, Harding says "a new home is a good idea along with being a head pro at a club or course."
Well, somewhere in Michigan there must be a smart owner of a new golf course or a chair of a private club search committee that is still fretting and worrying about finding a good, solid, experienced pro whose playing and teaching talents would be an added bonus to the facility.
Hey, as Harding has proven: why lose sleep worrying about uncharted territory? It's time to take the "Help Wanted" sign out of the window. Harding's your pro.
In Harding's bag:
Driver: Mizuno T-Zoid Ti 9.5 degree, S shaft; Honma 3-wood, graphite S shaft
Irons: Mizuno MP 29 irons, X1 shaft
Wedges: Cobra Greg Norman Grind, 57 & 54 degree
Putter: Ping Anser 2
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