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May 23, 2014

Rex Open golf leader unflappable

Harold Varner III was hardly fazed by taking the second-round lead Friday in the Rex Hospital Open. “I’m going fishing,” he said, breaking into a smile.

Harold Varner III was hardly fazed by taking the second-round lead Friday in the Rex Hospital Open.

“I’m going fishing,” he said, breaking into a smile.

Varner moved in front Friday with a 6-under-par 65 at TPC Wakefield Plantation, posting a 10-under 132 total in the Web.com Tour event. That stood up as others tried, unsuccessfully, to dislodge the former East Carolina golfer with a seemingly unflappable attitude.

Max Homa, a late-afternoon starter, had a 3-under 68 to trail Varner by a shot at 133. Homa, the 2013 NCAA medalist at California, was the winner last week in the BMW Charity Pro-Am.

“Today was about as high as I could have shot … but I’m really happy with the way I played,” Homa said. “You can’t bicker with 3 under.”

By the time the second round ended, Varner planned to be dipping a line with fellow tour player Ben Kohles, whose parents live in the area.

Varner, 23, is in his first year on the Web.com Tour and has had some respectable showings before the Rex. He tied for sixth in the WNB Golf Classic last month in Midland, Texas, and is 39th on the money list with more than $40,000.

Varner had a slow start to his year, saying he struggled in events in Chile, Panama and Brazil.

“I had a rough time in South America. It’s just different,” he said. “And I wasn’t playing well, so it was a bad combination. But I learned a lot.”

But Varner now is playing some of his best golf. He’s first on tour in greens in regulation and second in driving distance. His opening-round 67 was his eighth straight round in the 60s and his 65 Friday bettered his final-round 66 last week as his lowest of the year.

“I got back in America and got my groove back,” he said. “I’m hitting it far and I’m making some putts.”

In two rounds, Varner has 13 birdies, one bogey and only one real hiccup – a double-bogey 6 at the seventh hole on Thursday. Although 94th on the tour in putting, he needed just 26 putts Friday.

While Varner made a big move Friday, first-round co-leaders Carlos Ortiz and Colt Knost went backward after 64s. Ortiz, the tour’s top money winner, had a triple-bogey 6 in a 75. Knost stumbled to a 79 to miss the cut and had the dubious distinction of having the worst two-round turnaround on tour this year.

Former Rex champion Kevin Johnson had the day’s best round, rebounding from a 73 to shoot 64.

Varner, who grew up in Gastonia, said he picked ECU when he went on his official recruiting visit and his mother took a liking to Pirates coach Press McPhaul.

“She was more worried about outside of golf. I was more worried about golf,” Varner said.

While head coach at Vanderbilt, McPhaul had worked with PGA Tour winner Brandt Snedeker and Luke List, another Web.com Tour player. That, too, impressed Varner.

Varner was named Conference USA player of the year in 2012, helping ECU reach the NCAA Tournament. After college, he spent time on the eGolf Tour but also has had a taste of golf at the highest level.

He qualified for the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, missing the cut. He competed in the Nissan Open in Los Angeles this year (opening with a 69) and the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.

Varner said he played a number of different courses in the state while at ECU but never Wakefield. He did caddie once at Wakefield while in high school -- for a teammate competing in the Rex Junior Invitational.

But Varner has taken a quick liking to the layout this week. Wakefield is well-conditioned, rewarding well-struck shots.

As for holding the 36-hole lead for the first time in a tour event, Varner shrugged.

“It’s another opportunity,” he said.

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