CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The media shuttle dropped me off in the Quail Hollow Club parking lot here Tuesday morning. I had just flown in from Pittsburgh (and boy were my arms tired–no, don’t write that!).
I went directly from the airport to the course and hadn’t taken five steps from the van before a cart pulled up carrying Wells Fargo Championship executive director Kym Hougham.
So I stopped to say hello and shake hands, since I had missed this tournament last year due to knee surgery. Hougham is one of the most engaging tournament directors on Tour, and not coincidentally, one of the best.
Before I could get a second sentence out, here comes pro golfer Harold Varner III and his entourage. Harold had just finished a press conference in the media center and, seeing Hougham, wanted to say thanks. Kym asked how the press session went and Harold said with a grin, “Pretty good. I don’t think I said any bad words.”
Sorry I missed it, I just flew in, I told Harold, and reminded him who I was. I’ve written about him a few times, for sure at Silverado last fall. He is an engaging guy and, best of all, a total golf junkie. I mentioned that my son missed getting into the Wells Fargo Championship by two shots in the Monday qualifier and Harold replied, “That was at my home track.”
The qualifier was played at Gaston Country Club and yes, Varner is the pride of Gaston. He was born in Akron, Ohio, but grew up in Gaston, N.C., played college golf at East Carolina University.
Too bad you weren’t available for hire yesterday, I joked. “Yeah,” Harold said, “I was still in New Orleans trying to stay dry.” The Zurich Classic stop there was shortened to 54 holes and the tournament had to go to Monday afternoon to even get that much golf in and finish it. Brian Stuard won in a playoff. Varner finished eighth and impressively won $203,000.
Varner is another example of how much golf talent is out there waiting for a chance. There are two games in pro golf. One is playing well enough to get through the door onto a tour, any tour–Web.com or PGA Tour. There are a lot of players trying to squeeze through a tiny door. The second is taking advantage of the opportunity if and when you get it, even though the odds are stacked against you due to late tee times, course knowledge and the pressure of needing the money when you’re playing against well-fed millionaires.
Varner squeaked through in the 25th spot last year on the Web.com Tour, scoring the final PGA Tour card for 2016. All that got him was a low spot in the Tour’s priority ranking but here we are, the season is half over, and Varner is coming off back-to-back top-10 finishes (he’s had three this year) and has won just over $800,000, so he’ll be exempt in 2017, too.
He’s not some novelty act. He attracts media attention because of his skin color and the fact that golf has so few black faces. He’s not here for that or because of that. He’s here to play golf, and not only has he earned every bit of his success, he’s looking more and more like a player who can win on this Tour. He is on his way, at 25 years old, in other words. Varner is a big hitter for his size–he is only 5 feet 8 inches but he’s strong.
Who doesn’t love a golf junkie? Varner was asked at his media session what clicked the last few weeks in his game. He changed putters, he said. He bought a new putter at the Edwin Watts Golf store at Hilton Head Island.
Wait, what? Tour players rarely, if ever, pay for a golf club. And rarely, if ever, visit a retail golf store. Varner does.
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“I usually go in there and just mess around,” he said. “I bought an Odyssey putter, the one I putted with in college. It has the same face and it’s just back to basics for me. Pretty simple. It’s way more fun when you’re holing putts.”
The secret of golf, there it is–holing putts. Another secret is, holing putts when it matters. Playing under that pressure on the Tour, with the cameras watching, that takes some repetition. Varner is starting to get some.
“Last time I was here, I was like, Oh, it will be fine, nonchalantly,” he said. “Then when I got on the first tee, I was like, This is way over my head. It’s just experience. I think I’ll do a lot better this week.
“The last two weeks, I felt like I’ve had a chance. I just haven’t really had a chance with nine holes to go. I’ve had a chance with 18 holes to go, but you want a legit shot, like leading or one or two back with five holes left. That would be ideal. I just need to keep getting there. That’s a priceless thing.”
Tour golf is about getting the ball in the hole. Drive for show, you know the rest. Varner is 19th in driving distance and ninth in par-5 scoring average. That can make up for a lot of other faults. But he is only 175th in strokes gained putting. He ranks 201st in sand saves, which could be more about his putting than his bunker play. And his wedge play–right behind putting as the biggest skill on Tour–needs to be better. He ranks 184th in proximity to the hole on shots from 50 to 125 yards, the money scoring shots. There is room to improve with time, reps.
Varner likes the PGA Tour, of course. It’s the big show in golf. He misses the camaraderie of the smaller tours, though, and was surprised to find himself thinking fondly of them after he got here.
“It’s lonely out here, everyone kind of does their own thing, which is fine,” he said. “I didn’t realize how people just went about their own way. I enjoyed the Web.com Tour because you always had someone to hang out with.”
He will have a following this week. Gaston, population 213,000-plus, is only 22 miles away. There will be lots of faces in his gallery, many of them familiar to Varner. He plans to “do a better job of ignoring them” while he’s between the ropes, he said, and have fun with them afterwards. “Just quiet the noise, take care of business,” he said.
He’s a pro. Technically, and for the future as far as we can see, he’s a Tour pro.