Why Harding Loves Boyne Country
by Don VanderVeen
Tom Harding showed the Michigan PGA Section last year that there is little difference between being Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year. It doesn't take a Tiger to attest to that.
In just his second year as a member of the Michigan PGA, the assistant pro at Egypt Valley Country Club has established himself -- along with veterans such as Steve Brady, Jeff Roth and Jack Seltzer -- as a threat to win every time out.
Harding is shooting for repeat victories in this month's Tournament of Champions at Boyne Mountain and August's Michigan PGA Championship at Boyne Highlands.
"I feel confident," Harding says. "You have to hit it consistently those first couple of rounds so you can be there the last nine holes."
During his "rookie" season in the section, Harding walked off with titles at the Tournament of Champions and Michigan PGA. He finished seventh at the Michigan Open. As a result of that success, he ran away with 1997 Michigan PGA Player of the Year honors. "Everything came together and I played very steady," Harding said. "I putted very well. I didn't have many three putts, which helped me keep my bad holes to bogeys. Double bogeys are tough to recover from."
Not bad for a rookie. But then, Harding was not your ordinary rookie.
"It's not like I've just started to play," the 34-year-old Harding said. "I've been 11 years as a pro.
"It's still the same game. It's you against the golf course. If you shoot good numbers, it doesn't matter who you are playing. You're going to be right there.
"You have to just hang around, and you need a little bit of luck."
It is entirely possible that Harding may never have become a member of the section -- let alone win any tournaments -- if not for a disappointing turn in his athletic pursuits at Michigan State University.
"I went there to play baseball and got cut from the team as a freshman," Harding recalled. "It was horrible. I was devastated.
"I had a six- or seven-handicap in golf and went to the golf team as a walk-on."
Bruce Fossum, MSU's golf coach at the time, saw something special in Harding's swing and encouraged him to stick with the Spartan golf program.
"I wouldn't have been able to play golf there if I was playing baseball," Harding said. Fate sometimes takes funny hops -- or bounces, if you will.
Harding's transformation from baseball player to golfer has turned out to be as smooth as a tailor made double play. By the time Harding was a junior in 1986, he finished third in the Big Ten Championships. "It's weird how things worked out," Harding said. "If (Fossum) hadn't kept me, I probably wouldn't be in the golf business today."
Parlaying the success he enjoyed in his "other sport" after college, Harding was a grinder on the mini tours -- winning the 1991 Canadian PGA -- before focusing his attentions on becoming a teaching club professional. He joined Egypt Valley in 1996 with a reputation as a strong player.
The rest of the state found that out last year at the Tournament of Champions at Boyne Mountain and the Michigan PGA at Boyne Highlands.
What made those two victories at Boyne USA so extraordinary is that Harding never played the courses prior to the tournaments. The fact that each event is played on two separate courses -- the Alpine and the Monument at the Mountain, and the Donald Ross Memorial and The Moor at the Highlands -- made his accomplishment twice as remarkable.
"It seems like it shouldn't happen when you've never played them," Harding said. "They are all good courses where if you hit good shots you're going to be rewarded."
Harding credits his success in the Michigan PGA events to his conservative approach to the game.
"I'm a consistent ball striker and hit it straight off the tee," Harding said. "That helps when you get the ball out there and keep it in play. Putting is why I didn't get on the PGA Tour. I've always been a very solid striker of the ball, but my short game was lax.
"Last year, I played well and putted well. You've got to make the putts."
Harding knows that all too well after missing qualifying for the 1998 U.S. Open by one stroke.
"There was a stretch (during qualifying) when I three-putted three out of four holes,: Harding said. "It killed me.
"You just can't three-putt. It's too hard to make all that up."
For the most part, Harding's short game has held up. He continues to use the Ping Anser 2 putter he borrowed last year from the bag of his wife, Joal Reider Harding. Joal played on the LPGA Tour in 1993 and 1994.
"I cut it down a half inch, and I've been using it for a year now," he said. "It's a little bit psychological. If you're putting well with a putter, you don't want to lose it. The same is true with a driver.
"The putter and the driver are your most personal things, and the most difficult to replace."
Harding returned to Boyne Highlands earlier this summer and teamed with Egypt Valley club champion Chuck Rapolevich to finish runner-up in the Michigan PGA's State Pro-Am event.
"The last three tournaments I've had at Boyne (the only three he's played), I've had two firsts and a second," Harding said. "Those courses suit my game. I feel very comfortable when I play there."
That's enough to make the other golf professionals around the state feel just a little bit uncomfortable when heading for the Mountains this summer.
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