Gastonia’s Harold Varner III sinks a birdie putt on the fifth hole of the Wells Fargo Championship pro-am Monday at Quail Hollow Club. He turns smiling to his caddie, arms outstretched – an “I finally made a putt” gesture if there ever was one.
He willingly helps one of the amateurs in his fivesome line up a putt, tapping a spot where the ball should be struck (it misses). Varner shrugs.
Watching Varner, 23, play golf is to see someone thoroughly enjoying himself as a young career unfolds. He’ll do so this week close to home in Charlotte, getting a week off from the Web.com Tour to play at the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship, where he received a sponsor’s exemption.
“You’ve got to have fun out here,” Varner said. “People put a lot of weight on how they play. I don’t want to live like that. If things aren’t going right, the way to deal with it, dude, is to sit back, take a second and put the stress of not doing well toward what you are doing well. It’ll work out.”
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Since growing up in Gastonia, where he spent long summer days playing at Gastonia Municipal Golf Course (now Catawba Creek), through today, as he navigates pro golf’s minor leagues, Varner wants – above all else – to enjoy himself.
“He’s always been that way,” said Varner’s father, Harold Varner Jr. “That’s what you love about Harold. He’s not after the money. He wants to be best because he loves the game.”
A former star at Gastonia’s Forestview High and East Carolina, Varner III is in his second full season as a pro. Playing at the Wells Fargo is his third shot at a tournament in golf’s big-time – he qualified for the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., last summer (missing the cut) and played in February’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles (where he tied for 70th after shooting a confidence-boosting 69 in the first round).
“I’m doing a lot of things well,” he said. “I’ve got to keep it going.”
Learned from his father
Varner’s father introduced him to the game after the family moved to Gastonia from Akron, Ohio, during the 1990s. Varner Jr. enjoyed playing golf because of the friends and fellowship he developed through the sport. He wanted that for his son – the third of four children he and wife, Patricia raised – who was rapidly developing an affinity and love for golf.
“That’s why I didn’t have to encourage him,” Varner Jr. said. “He was enjoying playing because of the folks you meet.”
Varner III was able to play at Gaston Municipal all summer – no carts, weekdays only – for $100. Each day before going to work as a car salesman, Varner Jr. dropped his son off at the golf course with $5 for lunch.
Patricia Varner would go to pick Harold up at 1:30 p.m., but the youngster invariably begged to stay so he could play until sundown.
Varner III arrived at Forestview High with loads of potential. It was there that he drew the attention of Bruce Sudderth, a teaching pro at Gaston Country Club. Varner was working in the club’s bag room and picking up range balls in exchange for playing privileges.
“Harold came up to me one day and said, ‘Mr. Sudderth, I want to learn how to get better,’ ” said Sudderth, a former Champions Tour administrator who’s now the golf pro emeritus at Gaston Country Club. “That’s what he continually says to this day. That’s his greatest asset. He never makes excuses. He just wants to get better.”
If Varner developed a passion for the game at Gaston Municipal, he learned the fundamentals under Sudderth at Gaston Country Club.
That combination soon paid off. At Forestview High, Varner was the state 3A runner-up twice. He won the 2007 First Tee Open with pro Morris Hatalsky at Pebble Beach, Calif., then won the N.C. Amateur in 2011.
At East Carolina, he helped the Pirates make the NCAA tournament for the first time and was Conference USA’s golfer of the year in 2012.
Turning pro after graduating from East Carolina, Varner bounced between the eGolf (finishing second twice) and Web.com tours in 2012 and ’13.
An alternate for one of six potential spots in last year’s U.S. Open, he heard via Twitter that several players were dropping out. So he got in his car and began the drive to Ardmore, Pa., before getting the official word.
He shot 76-79 at tough Merion Golf Club.
“I got a little shocked by the Open,” Varner said. “I learned you have to stay calm. I get really excited in situations like that. So I need to learn from that.”
Wanting to give back
Varner had his best finish on the Web.com Tour last week, tying for sixth at the weather-shortened WNB Golf Classic in Midland, Texas. It was the second Web.com tournament for Varner on U.S. soil this season. The others have been in Latin America, where he struggled in tournaments in Chile, Brazil, Panama and Mexico.
“I play pretty good in America, but in South America, I don’t play worth a darn,” Varner said. “I’m not really used to it. But you have to play anywhere if you want to be good. If you start playing great, they send you around the world. I’ll figure it out.”
Varner played the PGA Tour tournament at Riviera on a special exemption to promote diversity in golf. He was the only African-American in the field, as he will be this week in Charlotte. He was one of two African-Americans – with Tiger Woods – to play in the U.S. Open last year.
And while Varner is grateful to African-American golf pioneers such as Charlie Sifford, who also grew up in the Charlotte area, he wants to make his own way now.
“For me, I don’t carry that torch,” Varner said. “I don’t think that’s right. You just need to see everyone for who they are. You want to give people the same opportunities that I’ve been given. I’m very fortunate there were guys who came before me that broke down barriers. But things are different now. If a guy treats me fair, or is willing to help me, he’s going to get the same treatment from me.”
Varner is more interested in one day giving back to the golf club that allowed him to play for $100 all summer.
“I miss that place,” he said of Catawba Creek. “Hopefully one day I can buy it. Playing for 100 bucks, there’s no place to do that now. It’s sad. If I could find a way to bring that back for kids, I’d do it.
“But I’d have to play really well to buy a golf course. So I have to step it up.”