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Harold Varner III understands the position he’s in on PGA Tour

‘I get asked about color all the time, but I want to help and reach out to not just black fans but all fans’

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — It’s just after 9 a.m. on Wednesday morning, just less than 24 hours before Harold Varner III is scheduled to tee off in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills. Traffic getting to the course on this rainy day has already reached levels so nightmarish that Tiger Woods offered, during his news conference, that there’s a possibility a golfer might miss his tee time.

If Varner’s worried or flustered the day before playing in his second U.S. Open, he’s definitely not showing it.

“I’m literally laying in bed,” the 27-year-old Varner says as he answers the phone, his Southern drawl revealing his childhood roots being raised in Gastonia, North Carolina. “How do I feel going into the U.S. Open? I feel pretty relaxed.”

Being “relaxed” just wasn’t the case when Varner played the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, as an alternate. To understand why Varner might have been a bit uptight, you have to consider the two-year journey that led to his very first PGA event.

In 2011, Varner won the North Carolina Amateur Championship.

In 2012, Varner earned the Conference USA Player of the Year award, capping a great college career at East Carolina University.

In 2013, Varner had just turned pro with the desire to reach the PGA Tour when he was named a U.S. Open alternate. After hearing several players had dropped out, he drove to Pennsylvania and got word along the way that he had gotten into the field. Weeks after playing on the eGolf Tour, Varner was in a tournament with Woods, Phil Mickelson and the other greats of the game.

He didn’t make the cut.

“I was really nervous and didn’t know what to expect,” Varner said. “I didn’t know how to play an Open. I was used to just being aggressive, hitting my driver everywhere and just moving fast. I learned that you don’t really need that.”

Five years later, Varner finds himself in a better place to compete at the U.S. Open. He’s been a regular on the PGA Tour since 2015, the first African-American golfer to advance to the PGA Tour from the Web.com Tour. Just last month he had a seventh-place finish at The Players Championship at TPC at Sawgrass, earning Sunday TV time as he battled for contention.

“I’m a lot more experienced now, and I have a better approach to the game,” Varner said. “I’m going into this knowing it’s going to be hard, and instead of just going out and hitting the ball, I have to use my head to try to figure the course out.”

Varner had to try to figure it out early, as he teed off at 6:45 a.m. on Thursday with the first group of the tournament. He shot a 79 and was 9-over-par heading into his 12:30 p.m. tee time on Friday.

It was 22 years ago that Woods debuted on the PGA Tour, winning the first of his 14 major events within a year. His dominance in golf was expected to inspire an increase in African-American golfers.

That didn’t happen. Varner is the only African-American to play on the PGA Tour since Woods turned pro.

The two met for the first time this year, giving Varner a chance to spend time with the player he looked up to as a kid.

Not because Woods was black.

“Because he was dominant,” Varner said. “He beat everybody and just had this mental toughness about him.”

Varner understands that some see him as a novelty on tour, and that black fans might follow him around a course during his rounds simply because of his skin color.

“I get asked about color all the time, but I want to help and reach out to not just black fans but all fans,” Varner said. “I do understand that I’m in an awesome position to help black kids, but I want to help all kids. I want to be able to relate and to help all people in society that we live in, especially at a time where this is so much dividing us.”

The trait in relating to a wide spectrum of people is something that Varner appreciates about Woods.

Both have similar backgrounds: Woods was introduced to the sport by his dad, Earl, while Varner’s dad, Harold Varner Jr., placed a golf club in his son’s hands at a young age.

When Varner was a kid, his parents spent $100 on a pass that allowed him to play as much golf as he wanted. Varner’s father, a car salesman, would drop him off at the golf course while on his way to work. And either Varner’s mother or father would pick him up at night.

“That’s all I would do all day, play golf, from June 1st to September 1st,” Varner said. “Playing that much really allowed me to realize that this is something I could be good at.”

Eventually Varner would begin playing regularly with a group called the Par Busters, a longtime Charlotte, North Carolina-based group of African-American golfers. Varner laughs about the many hours he spent being the only kid playing regularly with the adult group.

“Honestly, I just felt like I was one of the guys — without the drinking and stuff that goes on at the golf course,” Varner said. “Those guys looked after me. They fed me on the course, and they often made sure I got home.

“The biggest lesson I got from them: to just have fun. That’s the reason why they played golf, to get out with their friends, talk some smack and have fun.”

Of course, Varner also wants to win. While he’s yet to win a title on the PGA Tour, Varner did win the Australian PGA Championship in 2016. He’s only the second American to win the Australian PGA title, joining Hale Irwin, who won it in 1978.

“That was huge in terms of thinking, ‘OK, I can do this on this level,’ ” Varner said of the win in Australia.

And huge in terms of Varner showcasing his development from his first U.S. Open, where he entered with the attitude of pulling out his driver and crushing every shot. Varner’s game is more fine-tuned entering this year’s tournament, with the help of some advice he took from Woods just a month ago.

“I asked him about how he focuses with so much going on around him, and he said it’s like when you read a book with the TV and you can hear the noise in the background, but you don’t know what’s being said,” Varner said. “He told me to use that on the golf course: to hear the noise, but just focus on my book, my game. It was great advice.”

For Varner, the time has come to see if that advice, and the advances in his game, can carry him into the weekend in his second opportunity at the U.S. Open.

“I’ve been playing well and with confidence, and that’s a big difference from the first time I played the U.S. Open,” Varner said. “As a kid, I always wanted to be in a situation where I’m competing against the best people. I’m here now, and I’m enjoying the opportunity.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.