Thirty schools begin a chase Tuesday for the NCAA men’s golf championship at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and the most surprising qualifier in the field could well be East Carolina.
Not only have the Pirates never before reached an NCAA national golf tournament, they’re there with a group of players so lightly recruited out of high school that coach Press McPhaul chuckles when asked how he pieced the team together.
“It’s not too very far from what you’d have to describe as divine intervention,” said McPhaul, a Sanford native and former N.C. State player and assistant coach.
“These guys have probably surprised everyone except themselves and their families. They defy the odds just about every day, but that’s what makes them so special, too. I doubt if ECU was the first choice in high school for any of them, but they wouldn’t trade places now with any team in the country. I certainly wouldn’t trade ‘em for anybody anywhere.”
Seeded 23rd in the NCAA field, the Pirates are led by 5-foot-9, 165-pound Harold Varner, a 21-year-old product of Gastonia Forestview High School. Varner tackled an extraordinary 18-hour academic course load in his final semester and still managed to get selected as Conference USA player of the year.
“It was a real learning experience in every sense of the word,” Varner said of spring semester. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
“But the only way I could graduate in May was to load up all of those hours and just go for it. Somehow I made it.”
A marketing major, Varner said a course in operations management almost made him double-bogey the mission.
“It came down to the final exam, and I was nervous. I mean really nervous, but golf can make you nervous, too. So maybe that sort of helped me with that exam,” he said. “It was all worth it, though, on graduation day.”
Although he’s not blessed with great size, Varner is deceptively strong according to his coach.
“Harold’s like a lot of our guys. You might see him around the clubhouse, and he doesn’t strike you as a big hitter. But on the course, he can really move the ball,” McPhaul said.
Last summer in Greensboro, Varner became the first African-American to win the N.C. Amateur and the first player in history to win both the State Amateur and the State Amateur Match Play titles.
“Those were both huge thrills obviously,” Varner said. “But qualifying for the NCAA was just as thrilling because this was something we accomplished as a team.
“Just about every guy on our team is from North Carolina. We weren’t big deals in high school, but we’ve become a great team. We all care for each other. Coming here to school has turned out to be the greatest thing I could have ever hoped for. I’ll always love this place.”
In the NCAA lineup with Varner are fellow seniors David Watkins of Hamlet (Richmond County High) and Adam Stephenson (Greenville Rose), junior Zach Edmondson (Morrisville, Cary Christian) and sophomore Ryan Eibner of Cary, who went to high school in Texas.
“This is a group of terrific youngsters,” McPhaul said. “When we qualified in the regionals at Georgia, the guys who weren’t in the lineup packed up their cars, drove down there, slept on the floor and were out at the course every day to support their teammates. There’s a really strong bond.”
In the NCAA, the first challenge for the Pirates will be to survive the 54-hole stroke play cut after Friday’s round. Only eight teams will advance to the match play final segment, which will end Sunday. For the first two rounds -- Tuesday and Wednesday -- ECU is in a pod with Oklahoma and Illinois. Third-round tee times will be based on 36-hole scores.
The top five seeds are Texas, Alabama, California, Auburn and UCLA. Three ACC teams qualified -- Virginia (13th seed), Florida State (18) and Virginia Tech (28). In addition to the Pirates, four other C-USA reached -- Central Florida (19), Alabama-Birmingham (25), Memphis (27) and Tulsa (30).
After the final NCAA round, Varner is scheduled to play in a U.S. Open Sectional qualifying tournament on Monday in Rockville, Md.
“It’s going to be a busy summer, hopefully,” Varner said. “I would love to get to the Open (June 14-17, San Francisco Olympic Club), but I know that’s a long shot.
“Long-range, I’ll turn pro at some point this summer and then try for the tour in PGA qualifying school (Nov. 28 -Dec. 3, La Quinta, Calif.). But right now, all that matters is this one last tournament with my teammates. It’s going to be exciting, but at the same time it’s going to be a little sad, too.”