The FedEx Cup bubble boys are all in at Glen Oaks, but they’re also just happy to be here

August 24, 2017

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. — “Sundays are exciting, with everything that’s going on, but I do like Thursdays,” said Amanda Singleton, girlfriend of Harold Varner III, as she watched him play the 8th at Glen Oaks Club. “It’s pretty nice, having all this room to move around.”

Thursday morning at the Northern Trust Open was sunny and still, and crowds were sparse; many would-be spectators were still at work, and the clumping of groups by FedEx Cup position meant that large swarms surrounded Spieth-Thomas-Matsuyama while the group of, say, Pampling-Stroud-Tway received less attention.

The playoffs are indeed here, but golf tournaments are long, and momentum takes time to build. So while Russell Henley was busy ripping off eight birdies en route to a first-round 64 and a one-shot lead, I latched on to the bubble boys, the last men in, the 123rd-, 124th-, and 125th-ranked group of Harold Varner III, Vaughn Taylor, and J.J. Henry.

“Being here—it’s definitely good,” Taylor said after the round.

You could forgive the three if they were content merely to have made it this far; at last week’s Wyndham Championship, Taylor did just enough to preserve his status in the top 125, while Varner’s clutch top-10 and Henry’s heroic 72nd-hole birdie jumped them into the playoffs each by a single shot. But now, as Varner told me after the round, “it’s opportunity time. And opportunities are good.”

The threesome started on the back nine, and Varner went out in a sizzling three-under 32, capped off by a 45-foot bomb on 17. Taylor made a birdie and a bogey to turn happily at even, while Henry three-putted the opening hole and shot one over. Even on a calm sunny morning, birdies were tough to come by, which meant each was in more than satisfactory position.

Nearly two decades into their careers, it seems to take quite a bit to raise the blood pressures of either Taylor or Henry. On paper, the two are nearly indistinguishable: Each broke through professionally with a win at the tour’s Knoxville Open, and each has gone on to win three times on the PGA Tour, with two of those wins coming at the Tour stop in Reno, Nevada. The pair made the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2006, though neither made it again. Henry is 42, turned pro in 1998, and has banked $16 million on Tour; Taylor is 41 and turned pro in 1999, thus we can forgive that he is lagging behind at just $15 million.

Still, the pair are quite distinct in person. Henry is brown-haired and clean-shaven, a northerner-turned-Texan, who left Fairfield, Conn., for TCU and still makes his home in Fort Worth. He’s 6 foot 3 and cut a broad frame as he loped down the fairways in a pair of baggy black pinstriped trousers, and he did nothing quickly save for the explosive turn he made at the top of his swing.

Taylor is shorter and trimmer, blonde-haired and stubbly. He hits it a little shorter than Henry, but on Thursday he hit it a little smoother and straighter, too. He grew up in Augusta, just minutes from the home of the Masters, and never left; he attended Augusta State before turning pro, and he still lives minutes from his parents with his wife, Leot, and their two young children.

Varner is the young upstart who rounded out the group; he is just 5’8″ but more powerful than either playing partner, generating so much momentum through his tee shots that his entire body made a sort of balanced lurch forward in his follow-through.

There weren’t many of us following the action. A handful of fans would hang around for a hole or two, but just a few were keyed into their every shot. Taylor hit a wedge to two feet on their 12th hole, and Varner rolled in a 12-footer for birdie—but we were out away from the clubhouse, which meant that three volunteers, eight spectators and I were the only ones to witness it. Two of those spectators, Ron Porter and Frederick Biddle, were local 74-year-olds who track Varner every week but had never seen him in person.

“These are the ones he misses sometimes. When it’s going bad on TV, I’m telling you, these are the ones,” Ron whispered as Varner stepped up to a five-footer on the fifth hole. He rolled it in the center. “Well,” Ron said, “there you go. Things are going good.”

Varner stayed steady throughout the back nine, pleasing my companions. “I’ll tell you what happened,” said Frederick. “He went out there and took a week and practiced like hell and that’s how he got in here.”

It was a pleasant round to follow; the pace of things allowed for easy spectating. I caught up to Leot and Singleton, who were strolling together down the sixth. If they were nervous, they didn’t show it.

“Vaughn is exempt from winning last year anyway,” she pointed out, “so being here is awesome and I know he’s excited, but I know it wasn’t quite make-or-break like some of the other guys.”

She had snagged an extra Chik-fil-a sandwich from a tent and offered it to me. I considered the possibility that it could be a bribe, but I was hungry, and it seemed rude to decline. A loud roar went up from a hole ahead; sound traveled easily in the still air. Justin Thomas had just birdied the seventh.

Henry hit it in the front left bunker on the ninth, his final hole of the day, hacked out to the front of the green, and made bogey to post a two-over 72. He looked good around the greens but couldn’t conquer the bunkers; five trips to the sand had yielded four bogeys.

Taylor missed just two fairways, but struggled to get an iron close and shot an uneventful one over. He sounded pleased afterwards. “I know that I need probably what, a top 10 or something to get into the next event? So that’s just the situation—we’re just gonna see what we can do.”

Varner, who posted 67 after an even-par back nine, was more effusive. “You’ve gotta start with getting off the tee, which, gosh, it was really solid. And I just gave myself a lot of looks, and didn’t really do anything stupid, and that’s the way to do golf, man. I’ve been working at it a lot more, really working—and now I’m pumped, I’m super excited.”

Happy to be here and to be looking forward, Varner considered the alternate reality in which he’d be heading to the playoffs. Being here, he agreed, was definitely good.

“That would not be fun,” he said. “For sure not. Wow—for sure not.”