Harold Varner III tends to see white on the golf course – as in the ball heading into the hole. And while he includes Tiger Woods in his dream foursome with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, that selection is based on talent, not race.
The former East Carolina star acknowledges he can’t escape he’s a minority within a minority as one of just a handful of professional golfers of color applying their trade in the United States. But that’s as far as Varner will go with the black and white spotlight.
“I care about a guy like Charlie Sifford,” Varner said of the golfing legend, who passed away Feb. 3 and has often been referred to as the ‘Jackie Robinson of golf’ as the first African American to play on the PGA Tour. “If anyone was going to carry a torch it should have been him, not us. People always ask me what I’m going to do to change the black golfer issue. I tell them, ‘I’m not going to do anything. I am going to play golf and when somebody sees me they’re going to say he’s a really good golfer, not that he’s a really good black golfer.’ I think Tiger tries to do that and people give him crap for it. It’s Tiger’s job to be the best player in the world.
“Why should I just help black golfers?” Varner added. “Some fans on the course will say, ‘Dude, we’re pulling for you,’ which is fine, but I don’t pull for people just because they are black. I wasn’t raised that way. My dad wanted me to pull for someone because of their character or their athletic ability.”
Varner’s father is a car salesman and his mother works in a hospital. Neither went to college, so it was a big deal when Varner left Gastonia and headed to East Carolina on a golf scholarship to follow his dream of one day playing pro golf.
He first picked up a set of plastic toy clubs at 2, was given a “shortened” 5-iron by his dad at 4 and finished second in his first junior event as a 9-year-old. Varner was hooked on the sport after moving from cold-weather Ohio to warmer North Carolina, where the weather is more conducive to year-round golf.
“My dad was playing at least twice a week so I would just tag along with him,” Varner said. “I loved competing. That was the fun part about it. I never got big enough or tall enough to play football or basketball. My 8th grade year I tried to play basketball, and I didn’t start so I hated it. If I was big enough or tall enough I would have played basketball, for sure, so maybe it was God’s plan of telling me I shouldn’t have been playing basketball.”
East Carolina men’s golf coach Press McPhaul recalled the first time he saw Varner at the North Carolina Junior in 2006.
“He wasn’t really well developed as a player at that point, but he obviously had a lot of ability, a lot of club speed,” McPhaul said. “What really stood out about him was his attitude. The more I watched him after that date the more I started to notice that he was just having more fun than everybody else he was playing with.
“As good as his talent is his enthusiasm for the game, his enthusiasm for competing, his enthusiasm for getting better, and just his general overall love to play is one of the real differentiating factors about Harold,” his college coach added.
Over the next summer Varner would work with Gaston Country Club pro Bruce Sudderth, who has worked with numerous Tour professionals, to fine tune some techniques, and he entered ECU with a splash.
“After working with Bruce he came into college a good bit better product,” McPhaul said. “He started playing tournaments for us in the fall and was doing pretty well; just had that electric attitude. But the spring didn’t go so well his freshman year. More times than not freshmen get hit in the nose sometime their first year; they are away from home, doing their own laundry, they have more freedom and maybe they don’t get as much sleep as they should, maybe they make decisions they wouldn’t make if they were at their parent’s house. The cumulative effect of all of that can kind of make them hit a wall.”
Varner’s path to the pros was suddenly in jeopardy.
“At some point during the spring of his second year he began to take a longer look in the mirror and begin to decide that ‘OK, I can do this, I need to make better decisions and take control of my academics, I need to work a little harder, I need to grow up a little.’ That wasn’t an overnight transformation by any means,” his former college coach said.
Varner began to blossom in his junior and senior years and finished his ECU career as a star. He holds two of the four lowest rounds in school history and was a three-time all-conference golfer. His 72.28 stroke scoring average from 2009-12 is a school record as are his 18 top 10 finishes.
However, his career highlight may have been in 2012 when Varner led the Pirates to their first national championship (and only third NCAA postseason appearance in school history) at famed Riveria Country Club. Even though he tied for 69th and ECU finished 26th out of 30 teams that experience helped put East Carolina men’s golf on the recruiting map like never before.
“Because Harold is so extroverted and he is so enthusiastic he brought a lot to our team in the way of confidence,” McPhaul said. “When Harold was here he liked to call it swag. He brought a lot of that. He was quick (witted) in the van or at dinner the night before a round. He exuded confidence and imparted it to those around him. I didn’t fully appreciate to what extent he was doing that until he graduated and it seemed like there was a real void. We just didn’t quite have as much energy, or enthusiasm or positivity as we’ve had possibly in the past.
“Harold has taught us a lot about the importance of that. For him, it kind of came naturally. When it comes from a player like that, who has the respect of his teammates, it really has a tendency to sort of flourish within the program. By having him here for four years and making our program better he has taught us that that is pretty important. That’s one way he has left a stamp on our program.”
Now, Varner is beginning to make a stamp in professional golfing circles.
At 5-foot-9, Varner is not an imposing figure on the tee, but he regularly booms drives over 300 yards with his tremendous club speed, and is one of the Web.com Tour’s most aggressive players on par-5s.
Varner laughed when discussing his physical stature during our interview at Prestonwood Country Club in the winter before a golf clinic he was speaking and signing autographs at.
“At best,” Varner said when asked if he was really 5-foot-9, “maybe with my hat on.”
“He does create a pretty fantastic amount of club-head speed,” McPhaul said. “He is a really good athlete, he is an explosive athlete. There are probably two ways guys can create power. You can be long, be tall and have a big, wide arc — a player like Davis Love III. But smaller guys who are explosive athletes can really create a lot of speed. That’s where Harold’s power lies. My guess would be 115 mph – and that may be a little conservative.”
Varner finished fourth in driving (312.9 yard average), third in greens in regulation and eagles, and 30th on the money list during his rookie season on the Web.com Tour in 2014, but admits he “choked” down the stretch in a number of tournaments with poor chipping and putting, and some questionable course management. He was 110th in putting average and 137th in putts per round, managing one second-place finish at the local Rex Hospital Open.
Not deterred by a poor short game, he quickly said his goal in 2015 was to finish first on the money list and win his PGA Tour card.
“I don’t see why I can’t be,” he said. “And I want to win. Winning will take care of everything, and if I work on my short game that will take care of winning. I draw back to all the small stuff, the little things in the game. I think I’m getting closer.
“All of these players are good, so all it takes is one week. I know my best is good enough. You can’t focus on what someone else is doing, but it’s easy to do when you’re trying to climb the money list.”
The Web.com Tour has a light schedule prior to March with just two events, but Varner is off to a hot start with a runner-up and 12th place finish in the two tournaments for an early-season spot at No. 4 on the money list.
“The expectations are going up but the process remains the same,” he said.