3.9k Share this
AUGUSTA, Ga. — His son had just made himself a weekend contender in his very first Masters when Harold Varner Jr., a 70-year-old man built like a 1-iron, started summoning the sweetest memories from Harold III’s youth.
“I would always tell him, ‘This is your putt for the Masters, take it serious,’ ” the father recalled.
Harold Jr. was standing behind the Augusta National clubhouse with his wife, Patricia, both of them growing emotional over their son’s journey from a 2-year-old swinging plastic clubs to a 31-year-old moving up the Masters leaderboard on a day when many second-round hopes were going, going, gone with the wind.
Patricia started talking about this memorable day that left Harold III at 2-under for the tournament, a half dozen strokes off Scottie Scheffler’s 36-hole lead, when she started to cry.
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. If her son can charge from behind and win the Masters in his first crack at it, Patricia added later, “You might have to call an ambulance for me.”
Harold Jr., once a six-handicap, was the one who taught Harold III the game. The father would practice his swing in front of a mirror and freeze his textbook follow-through, and the son would then do the same. Harold Jr. would replace Harold III’s plastic clubs with a sawed-down 8-iron.
“And that’s how it started,” Harold Jr. said.
The kid carried that 8-iron everywhere. Harold III started learning the game at Good Park, a city course in Akron, Ohio, before his family moved to Gastonia, N.C., where a $100 pass earned him a play-all-you-want junior membership at the municipal course. A car salesman, Harold Jr. would drop off his son at the course on the way to the dealership early in the morning, and Patricia would pick him up at night. At age 12, Harold III set a goal of beating his father by 20 strokes.
“And he beat me by 21,” Harold Jr. said.
Harold III grew into a college star at East Carolina, and in 2015 became the first African-American player to make it to the PGA Tour from what was then known as the Web.com Tour. But Varner has never wanted to be defined by his race in a largely white country-club sport.
“I would hope [representing] kids that just don’t have access would be my number one thing,” he said Friday. “If a black kid or white kid wants to be like me, I think that would be an inspirational thing. I would hope I’d carry myself in a way where they would want to be as close to the profession as they could. I think a lot of times in the black community, it’s more about the economic issues. It’s just hard to play golf. You can’t just walk up and play golf for a reasonable price. I’m very adamant about helping those people, and if they’re black, I’m going to help them, and if they’re white, I’m going to help them.”
As an everyman role model, a 5-foot-8 golfer with a heavyweight’s game, Varner put himself in position to qualify for the Masters by winning the Saudi Invitational in February with a 92-foot putt for eagle on the final hole. His mother was watching in bed when that putt dropped, and his father was watching from the couch, and they were both screaming deliriously while their dog ran and ran about.
“I could not get off that bed,” Patricia recalled. She was too busy shouting, “Oh my God, he won.”
Yes, he won. The only downside? As a tournament champ, his sponsor and friend Michael Jordan will now require Varner to give him 10 shots in their matches instead of eight.
It’s still a charmed life the world’s 40th-ranked player is living, as there aren’t many people on the planet who get text messages from Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
“Tiger told me the greatest thing,” Varner said. “I asked him, ‘What does it take to win?’ He said, ‘You quit worrying about winning.’ It helped my demeanor to just do what I’m good at, play golf, hit the shot that it calls for.”
Varner unraveled the last time he had a shot at winning a major, shooting 81 on the final day of the 2019 PGA Championship. But that was then and this is now. He said that he thinks about winning the green jacket “all the time,” and that the pressure of doing it has diminished since the birth of his son Liam last fall.
“You just hold him,” Varner said, “and you’re like, ‘He doesn’t give a s–t if I have a green jacket or a gold jacket.’”
But Varner’s parents do care. Harold Jr. was too nervous to watch his son putt Friday, so he made sure to repeatedly walk ahead to the next tee box when Harold III was on the green. That’s OK. The old man was supposed to play his traditional Masters-week golf in the Charlotte area with some old friends from Akron, but he was glad to cancel.
If Harold III rallies to win the Masters, his father said, “it would be the completion of my dreams for him.” And the culmination of one of the most inspiring journeys in the field.