Harold Varner III stood on the 10th tee Sunday afternoon at Riviera Country Club in a place he hadn’t been very often in his five years on the PGA Tour: tied for the lead late on Sunday.
Most of the attention during the final round of the Genesis Invitational had been on his two other co-leaders, Adam Scott and Matt Kuchar, along with stars in contention like Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson—with a sprinkling of tournament host Tiger Woods, who would go on to finish last. But there was Varner, quietly shooting one under par on the front nine to move into that first-place tie.
And then, with one awful swing, the dream died. Like most players on Sunday, Varner hit 3-wood on the 304-yard 10th, one of golf’s most famous and treacherous short par 4s. The goal wasn’t so much to get the ball on the green as to get it someplace where an up-and-down for birdie was possible.
Varner never had a chance. He chunked the tee shot so badly that the ball went only 128 yards, leaving him with an impossible approach to the green. He ended up making double-bogey 6. Clearly shaken, he bogeyed the par-5 11th hole to drop out of contention. When the day was over, he had shot a three-over 74, leaving him in a tie for 13th place.
“I missed the ball—just completely missed it,” he told Golf Channel after finishing. “Terrible timing, huh?”
Asked later if he had slipped on the swing, he said, “I just know I missed it. I missed the ball. I couldn’t tell you exactly what happened. I just know that I hit the dirt before the ball.” He went on to say that he had hit an identical shot once in South Korea—saying, “Funny enough, same shot, same wind conditions.”
Here’s the thing about Varner: He can find humor in almost anything. As disappointed as he was Sunday, he wasn’t likely to sulk about it. Many players—perhaps most—wouldn’t have spoken to any media after shooting 40 on the back nine on a Sunday to slide from T-1 to T-13. That’s not Varner.
I first met him in Houston in April 2016, his rookie year on the tour. I wanted to write a story on him for Golf Digest, at least in part because he was, at that moment, the only African-American on the PGA Tour. Woods was out injured. I was going back and forth that week between college basketball’s Final Four and the Shell Houston Open. I’d arranged to talk to Varner on Friday after he played in the morning during the second round.
This can be risky for a reporter because if a player misses the cut early on Friday, he will be in no mood to talk and will often catch the first flight out. The tour has a travel agent in the locker room to help players in those situations. On Thursday, after a day at the basketball arena, I returned to my hotel room and checked the scores: Varner had shot a four-over 76 and was well on his way to a fourth straight missed cut.
I sent him a text, asking if he missed the cut if he would still feel up to talking to me after his round. The answer came back right away: “John,” it said. “I play golf for a living. My life is great. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
That’s Varner. Two years ago, he was in the first group off the first tee at Shinnecock Hills on Day 1 of the U.S. Open. He shot a nine-over 79 and was the first player who came to meet with the media.
Someone asked him if it had been a tough day. Varner laughed. “Tough day?” he said. “I was getting paid to play golf on one of the greatest golf courses in the world. You want to talk to someone who had a tough day, go talk to the volunteers out there who had to try to find my golf balls.”
Back to Houston. Varner shot 75 that Friday to miss the cut by seven shots or, as golfers put it, “by a million.” He had a big smile when I met him coming out of the scoring tent.
“Hey, I’m not playing well,” he said. “I know it’s still in there. I haven’t forgotten how to play. I’m good at golf. It’ll come back.”
When we sat down, I asked him how aware he was that he was at the time the only African-American on tour. “Of course I’m aware of it,” he said. “When people say, ‘You know, you’re the only African-American,’ I say, ‘No s—? Really?’ ”
Varner doesn’t play the “race doesn’t matter” game. He feels he has a responsibility in what is largely a white tour to not only play well but to try to inspire others who look like him to play the game well.
“It’s too bad we’re still talking about this,” he said. “But, until there are more of us playing out here, it’s going to be an issue.”
Like everyone else, Varner has no answer to the question of why there aren’t more minorities playing on the tour. Right now, it is Woods, Varner, Joseph Bramlett and Cameron Champ. The First Tee, which was launched in 1997 in the aftermath of Woods’ stunning 12-shot victory at the Masters, says it has reached “more than 15 million young people” and has more than 1,200 chapters nationwide. It has raised millions of dollars for educational programs. And yet, it has produced exactly one PGA Tour player: Scott Langley, who is a minority—he’s left-handed.
Varner, who learned to play at Gastonia Municipal Golf Course (now Catawba Creek), where his father paid $100 a year so Harold could play Monday through Friday, has helped out The First Tee whenever asked and is now the spokesman for the group in North Carolina. But he doesn’t necessarily see it as the way to produce more minorities on tour.
“I think what they do is good, teaching kids right from wrong through golf,” he said. “I’m all for it. But it’s always felt to me like it was more day-care through golf than anything else.”
Varner, who also sponsors an AJGA tournament in North Carolina, believes that more clubs—public and private—need to give kids unfettered access to their courses to produce more top young players. “You give the kids access, maybe give them a couple of lessons so they know the basics, then let them play. If they have the talent and the interest, they’ll get good.”
Varner is 29 and has been a good player since reaching the tour by finishing 25th on what was then the Web.com Tour in 2015. His best finish was a T-3 a year ago in the Northern Trust, and his best finish at the end of a season was last year, when he was 38th on the FedEx Tour points list. He has become what the media calls a “go-to guy” in the locker room because he’s smart, honest, funny and doesn’t hide out after a bad round.
Last May, he was tied for second going into the last round of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black and found himself in the last group with leader Brooks Koepka. On a tough, windy day, Varner shot 81 and slid to T-36.
“I’m pissed, disappointed,” he said afterward. “But it really was fun. I want to get back into this position as soon as I possibly can.”
Varner is a streaky player. He had missed four straight cuts going into Los Angeles. But he will no doubt look at the first 63 holes of the past week as the start of a good run because, as he says, he’s good at golf.
Four years ago, after the missed cut in Houston, he made his next nine cuts—including a T-9 in San Antonio, a T-8 in New Orleans and a seventh in Washington. He finished 75th on the points list for the year and has been solid ever since.
But he still hasn’t won on the PGA Tour. Clearly, that’s the next step for him. It also would be a big step for the tour. Varner’s good at golf, but he’s better at being a person. And he knows his job isn’t just about making birdies. It’s about reaching the next generation. Unlike a lot of athletes, he gets that. Which is why everyone in golf should be pulling for him to win—ASAP.