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Gastonia’s Harold Varner III wins Australian PGA Championship

Harold Varner III celebrates winning the Australian PGA Championship at Royal Pines, Gold Coast on Saturday.
Harold Varner III celebrates winning the Australian PGA Championship at Royal Pines, Gold Coast on Saturday. AFP/Getty Images

Harold Varner III, a former Gastonia Forestview golf star, held on to win the Australian PGA Championship by two shots on Sunday, claiming his first title outside the United States after a roller-coaster last round 65 that included seven birdies and two bogeys in a nine-hole run at Royal Pines.

The 26-year-old American was a runner-up here last year after losing a three-way playoff to Nathan Holman, but he avoided the extra hole this time. He took a two-shot lead into the last hole and tapped in for par to finish 19 under.

Varner was two clear of Andrew Dodt and four clear of former No.1-ranked Adam Scott. Dodt held a two-shot lead before the final round but couldn’t match it with Varner’s nine birdies over the last 18 holes and closed with a 69.

“Right now I’m just super excited,” Varner said. “After last year, it feels good to come back and finish it off.

“It’s my first win since the mini tours, so it’s a step in the right direction.”

Varner had a hectic week at the event that is co-sanctioned by the Australasian and European Tours. After lightning and rain stopped his first round after 14 holes, he had to set the alarm for 2:45 a.m. Friday to get up in time for an early courtesy car ride to his 5:30 a.m. tee off.

He finished his first round on a roll and in a share of the lead at 7 under. Then, he went out and finished his second round before lunch time on day two. His spare time has included blackjack at the casino where he’s staying, and where he was headed Sunday night.

Since it was his first win outside the mini tours, he wasn’t fully ready for the routine for a champion that included extra interviews, news conferences, photos opportunities and trophy presentations.

“Nobody told me about the other stuff that goes along with winning. There might have been 1,000 pictures out there,” he said in a news conference.

Then he filled the trophy with champagne, took a sip and passed it around. “Winning is cool.”

Varner, who is the only player other than Tiger Woods with black heritage on the PGA Tour, had four top-10 finishes last year in his rookie season on the premier U.S. tour. Varner is hoping this win is the launching pad for a better 2017.

He was the first American to win the Australian PGA title since Hale Irwin in 1978 at Royal Melbourne, and the first non-Australian to claim the title since 1999.

“Winning is just … different,” he said. “Three years, I haven’t won, so this is special.”

After graduating from East Carolina in 2012, Varner spent three years in golf’s minor leagues before earning his Tour card last fall. While playing at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte in May, Varner said he enjoys the perks and attention of the tour but acknowledged it’s not easy.

“It’s lonely,” Varner said. “Everyone kind of does their own thing, which is fine. I kind of have to have fun by myself, which is kind of weird. But I didn’t realize how people just kind of went about their own way. I think I’m doing a little bit of that myself, which I guess is good in a way.”

Scott started the last day four shots off the pace but again was wayward off the tee. The 2013 Masters champion kept in touch with three birdies in four holes from the eighth and added an eagle at the par 5 15th before finishing with a 67.

“It was my best round of the week and it wasn’t good enough unfortunately,” he said. “But, I kept myself in it for most of the day and they’ve just played better.”

Scott said he planned to put the clubs away for a while and enjoy a break in Queensland state, where he grew up, catching up on family time, watching some cricket and tennis and doing some surfing.

The clubs “will be away for a couple of weeks and if they’re not too rusty by Christmas, I might bring them back out and shake some of the rust off,” he said. “I'll just play around for fun and then I'll get serious once the new year starts. I need a good break for lots of reasons but it would be good to not play too much before the new year now.”