By Keith Jackson
Justin Harding held off a number of fast-finishing rivals to claim a two-shot victory at the Magical Kenya Open in Nairobi.
Harding stayed calm and composed throughout the final round at Karen Country Club, closing with a bogey-free 66 for a winning score of 21 under par, two better than Kurt Kitayama while Scotland’s Connor Syme fired a 64 to earn a podium finish.
After sleeping on a two-shot lead overnight, Harding opened with a steady run of pars before birdies at the sixth and seventh kept him in control of the tournament, and his grip strengthened with a superb drive to 15 feet at the short par-four ninth which he converted for an eagle-two.
Kitayama closed within one when he made the first of two eagles for the round at the sixth before the South African hit back with his birdie at the next and his brilliant two at the ninth, but the American again trimmed the deficit to two shots when he atoned for a six at the 11th with a chip-in for eagle at 12.
Syme, meanwhile, emerged as a genuine threat when he made a seventh birdie in 10 holes at the 12th to get to 17 under for the week, but although he added further birdies at 15 and 17, they were both responses to a pair of bogeys which prevented him from piling significant pressure on the leader.
A par at the last capped a 64 and gave Syme the clubhouse lead on 17 under, which looked increasingly likely to fall short as Harding maintained his advantage over playing-partner Kitayama down the stretch, the pair trading pars before both birdied the penultimate hole.
Harding held himself together to make a solid par at the last and clinch his second European Tour title, his first coming at the Qatar Masters in 2019 which lifted him into the world’s top 50 and earned a maiden appearance at the Masters, where he was just one shot off the lead at the halfway stage before fading over the weekend, finishing tied for 12th.
“I went through such a good run in 2019 when it felt like I never actually played badly,” said Harding, who arrived in Kenya without a top-10 finish since September and on the verge of slipping out of the top 200 in the world rankings.
“I wouldn’t say I was in a slump, but I was in a dip in form in terms of mixed results and it was nice to get over the line this time around. Winning isn’t everything but I think being in the winner’s circle again means a little more to me than I thought it did.
“Ultimately, I just hope that I can kick on and it would be nice if I could go on a run like I did in 2018/2019 but who knows? Maybe I do it, maybe I don’t. We’ve just got to keep giving ourselves some chances.
“I’m just happy with the way I managed my game. I made a mess of 11 and 12 and ultimately the way I played 13 through 18 this week, it was a bit of a stressful time. I executed some shots and managed to make a couple of good par saves.”
Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez raced into fourth place on 16 under with an eight-under 63 that featured seven birdies and an eagle in a remarkable 11-hole run, while England’s Sam Horsfield enjoyed his best week since landing his second win of the UK Swing last year carding a 65 to finish tied for eighth.
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March 23, 2021, 10:00am
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