By Dan Reardon
It is something every athlete strives for in their careers — to be noticed. The trick is to gain that attention for the right reasons.
Dustin Johnson was asked about his three putt on the final hole at Chambers Bay for a year, right up until his win at Oakmont. Jordan Spieth needs the same eraser moment after the seven at the par-three 12th on Sunday at the Masters. It will come up with certainty before the Masters in 2017.
Harold Varner III is a rookie on the PGA Tour, and you might think he gets noticed for being a smallish 5’8” who drives the ball 300+. But that is not what gets Varner attention in his rookie campaign. Harold Varner is the only African-American player currently on Tour, and he knows the question is always sitting there, stereotypically to be asked.
Recently at Memorial he was asked who his inspiration was as he got started in the game, and he knew what he was expected to say. “I look up to my parents. The sacrifices, that’s something I don’t know if I’d be able to do. If I looked up to anyone, it would be Tiger. He’s the best player in the world. If it would have been anyone else, I probably would have looked up to them just because you want to be the best, and he was — when I was watching golf, it was unbelievable what he was doing.”
That didn’t get him off the hook, so he doubled down on the follow-up. “I wanted to be the best, and he happened to be black. So it just is what it is. That’s how he was created, and he was really good, and I wanted to be really good. But it’s easy to connect that. That’s the first thing everyone says, ‘oh, he’s black.’ And I’m like, ‘no, that’s not why.’ It is cool to see him out there — or it was.”
So Varner is climbing the ladder in the game and relying on the fact that his talent, not his heritage, will distinguish him over the years.
Growing up in North Carolina, Varner was a credentialed prep golfer and moved to the next level at East Carolina University. His four years produced record-setting results, including being the first Pirate to earn Conference USA Player of the Year honors in 2012.
Turning professional upon completion of his senior season, Varner made a pass at the the Web.com Tour. But he had to settle for migrant professional golf on a couple of Florida’s mini-tours. That’s the equivalent a trying to get to baseball’s majors playing for unaffiliated minor league teams.
After two years in golf’s Outback, Varner earned his way into the PGA Tour system with a T32 in the final stage of Web.com Tour qualifying. In two years on the developmental tour, his best finish each year was second. But he finished the 2015 season 25th on the money list, the magic number to move to the big tour in 2016. “Regardless of what happened today, if I don’t get better, I won’t keep going where I want to go,” Varner told the PGA Tour after the regular season finale. “But right now, I’m going to thoroughly enjoy this moment.”
In his fourth event with full playing status Varner picked up a top 10 (T5) in Asia at the OHL Classic and opened 2016 with a T13 at Sony in Hawaii. He floated through much of the start of the 2016 schedule but changed the script at the end of April with consecutive top 10s at Valero and New Orleans.
At 25 his focus and priorities have never changed — try to be the best. Golf uniquely played into that philosophy of life. “One thing I loved about golf is you could get better without someone else. All the other sports you need a team or you kind of have to be around someone that wants to do the same thing. Golf, honestly, if you really love it, I think you can get better by yourself.”
It’s an approach he acquired as a youngster. “I got to go to the golf course every day until — my dad dropped me off at — he had to be at work at 8:00, so I was there at like 7:45 every morning until he picked me up at 7:00-something at night.” It’s the approach he hopes will allow him to eventually be noticed in his sport for the right reasons.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.