As a college golfer at East Carolina, and even during his first three years on the Web.com tour, Harold Varner III thought he was working hard to improve his game. Looking back, though, he realizes that he didn’t actually know what hard work was in those days.
“I think I’m getting better at learning how I need to get better,” said Varner. “I can’t really describe it, but I thought I wanted to get it better until I figured out what people really do to get better.
“I think it’s just about knowing that I’m good enough and making sure I’m around people who know how to work.”
Varner has attracted plenty of attention around the PGA Tour in the past month. In early August he wrote a piece for The Player’s Tribune about his journey through the professional golf world so far, airing his frustration at the American media’s fixation on the fact that he is the only black player on the tour.
“From when I first started playing golf at a high level, I was seen as the good black golfer — not just a good golfer,” he wrote. “Even though my primary goal is to be the best golfer on the PGA Tour, and even though I have the same goals as any of the top players, I’m often labeled as that guy. You know … the black guy who isn’t Tiger. Trust me, I hear it.”
Right after that article launched, Varner competed in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio. An automatic qualifier because of his victory in the Australian PGA Championship in December, Varner had high hopes of shooting well enough at Bridgestone to qualify for the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow. Varner grew up in Gastonia and lives and trains now in Charlotte, so he had his sights set on the Queen City event.
Unfortunately, he finished the tournament tied for 50th, which was not enough for a trip to Quail Hollow. But he knew he had a few more opportunities to crack the FedEx Cup Top 125 and make the PGA playoffs, starting with the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro. He tied for 10th, marking his first Top 10 finish of the season, adding enough points to vault him into the Top 125.
Sitting at No. 123, Varner had guaranteed his PGA Tour card for the third straight year, but he had his eye on qualifying for the Tour Championship. His next stop was the Northern Trust in Old Westbury, NY, where he came in 20th and made it to the Dell Technologies Championship, which will unfold this weekend at TPC Boston.
“It’s insane,” Varner told pgatour.com. “I have a great opportunity now and I’m just really excited about it.”
His performance at the Northern Trust bumped him to 91st in the Cup standings, and suddenly he wasn’t just a golfer hoping to live to fight another day at the top level of play. With consecutive Top 10 and Top 20 performances, Varner has regained the measure of confidence that helped him crack the Top 10 four times and finish with the No. 75 spot in the FedEx Cup rankings.
It’s been a month of doing the things he has wanted to do all year, he said, and this weekend’s tournament will be the next big test of the more intense training regimen he has undertaken.
“I think I have a really good opportunity to do great,” he said.
When he does claim his first American Tour victory, Varner has a simple hope — that the media will treat his accomplishment just as it would any golfer claiming a big trophy.
The tenor of the coverage in Australia was refreshingly different, he said. But judging from the stories written about Varner so far, he doesn’t anticipate color-blind coverage on this side of the ocean.
“When I talked to the media in my press conference and in private interviews, all they wanted to know about was how my victory was going to propel my career, how it felt to be a first-time winner — things like that,” he wrote in The Player’s Tribune of his experience after his big win Down Under. “They were normal questions. And to the best of my knowledge, I don’t recall being asked one time about my race.”
Certainly Varner hopes he can be a role model not just for young black golfers but for golfers of every race who need the kind of opportunity he was handed as a boy in Gastonia, when he could play an unlimited number of rounds all summer for just $100. But the best way to enhance interest in the sport, from his perspective, is to shoot the lowest scores possible, every time he takes the course.