Varner's dreams just getting started
For Harold Varner III, the rattle of golf clubs always gave it away that his father was trying to sneak off to the course without him.
To prepare for his father's weekend morning escape attempts to one of the many Charlotte, N.C., area courses he played with his buddies from the Par Busters -- a local African-American group -- the young Varner would shower and lay his clothes out the night before. The goal was to be ready so he could dress quickly and grab his clubs if he heard his father trying to rush out of the house.
Fast on his father's heels, Harold III would say, "Dad, where we going?"
Often father and son would end up at the Gastonia Municipal G.C., where for $100 a year kids could play unlimited golf Monday through Friday.
"The muni gave me a place to play, an opportunity to learn the game," Harold Varner III said.
Since taking up golf as a toddler after watching his father, Harold Varner Jr., make practice swings in front of a mirror, Harold Varner III has seized every opportunity to be on a golf course.
Now that precocious little boy who coaxed his father into letting him tag along for weekend matches is a 23-year-old Web.com Tour member making his first start in a regular PGA Tour event this week as the sixth recipient of the Northern Trust Open Exemption, which was launched in 2009 to promote diversity in the game.
"The exemption is a blessing for sure," Harold Varner III said. "You have to take advantage of it more than anything. Playing well is a good way of honoring those who came before me, because if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't have this opportunity."
The Northern Trust Open Exemption is a formal acknowledgement of the pioneering efforts of men such as Joe Louis and Charlie Sifford to make the PGA Tour accessible for African-Americans. Sifford, who challenged and broke through the PGA of America's Caucasians-only clause in 1961, won this event in 1969 when it was played at the Rancho Park Golf Course.
Like Varner, Sifford grew up in the Charlotte area, but during a time when it was not possible for a black child to regularly play on a city-owned golf course in the South.
When Varner tees off Thursday at the Riviera Country Club, he will be the only black man in the field and most likely the only player of African descent other than Tiger Woods to play in a 2014 regular PGA Tour event.
Golf is overwhelmingly white, from the junior ranks to the college level to the pro game to the media to the equipment industry to the tournament vendors to the men and women who give lessons and take your green fees at your local golf club.
The game is the least diverse of any major sport in America. To be black in golf is to know intimately the feeling of being the "only one," and often charged with holding up the banner for the whole race in the sport.
During the recent Super Bowl, it was hardly mentioned that Russell Wilson was just the second black quarterback to lead a team to victory. Two black men were named to NFL head-coaching positions this winter, and the number of people of color in NFL front-office positions continues to grow under the watchful eye of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, football's main watchdog for racial inclusion.
Varner's mere appearance at Riviera this week is a reminder that he is black and that the game is fully aware of its lack of diversity.
The former East Carolina star knows the frustration of the black poet who told the Harlem Renaissance giant, Langston Hughes, "I want to be a poet -- not a Negro poet."
Raised by his father to not see race in people, Varner, much like Sifford and Woods, refuses to be easily categorized.
"I don't want to be the best black golfer or to be thought of as the best black golfer that someone has ever played with," he said. "I want to be the best player."
Harold Varner Jr., a 62-year-old car salesman, always had an inclusive, multiracial vision of the world for his son that golf helped nurture. "It takes a village to raise a child," he said.
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Growing up, Varner III was deeply influenced and financially supported by both the black and white golfers he got to know at the municipal course and at Gaston Country Club, where he worked during high school.
His father exposed him to black groups like the Par Busters and the Tire Town Club from Akron, Ohio. From these golfers, he learned to appreciate the struggle that Sifford and others faced to simply gain an opportunity to compete on the PGA Tour.
From the wealthier white golfers at Gaston CC, he gained an appreciation for what having access to resources, professional lessons and better facilities could do for his development as a player. With Bruce Sudderth, a teaching pro at the club, he learned the swing and the finer elements of scoring.
"Harold's biggest weakness isn't really in his ballstriking or anything like that," said Sudderth, who was tournament director on the Champions Tour for 11 years before he starting working with Varner in 2006. "It's his lack of experience. He never grew up playing in all the big junior tournaments all over the country that Jordan Spieth and others did.
"Up until the time he went to college, the most competitive golf he played was in high school golf."
Sudderth says that Varner wasn't prepared last June at Merion for the U.S. Open.
"Harold's eyes got kind of big," Sudderth said of Varner missing the cut. "He had never been on a stage that big."
After playing Riviera this week, Varner will get an opportunity to gain some much-needed experience on the Web.com Tour, where he has full status after finishing in a tie for 32nd in December at the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament.
"I'm good enough, capable, but I know I need to get better," Varner said.
Driving this fierce determination to succeed is a strong faith.
"My faith is my most important thing in life," he said. "At the end of the day, that's all I have. I think if my footsteps are ordered, there is a reason where I am in a certain place.
"If God didn't think I was capable or ready, he wouldn't have me in this position."
Varner's future as professional is uncertain. Exempt through his first eight events on the Web.com Tour, he will have to play consistently all year to earn a regular tour card. But he has already had opportunities in the game that Sifford and black men of his father's generation never had when they were his age.
If the Northern Trust Open Exemption is mostly a reminder of the sad state of diversity in the game, it also represents hope because Varner embodies the potential and aspirations of every young black child who desires to play on the PGA Tour.
Perhaps the greatest lesson to glean from Varner's story is that he embraced everything and everyone around the game that would help him get better -- black as well as white, and rich, middle class and poor. These people and their institutions took responsibility for his future because they recognized his love for the game.
So we're all accountable in this fight for diversity in the game. The Northern Trust Open, the First Tee and the main governing bodies shouldn't be in this alone. We're the village to make the game look more like America.
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