Harold Varner proves he belongs among the Masters leaders

Harold Varner III prepares to putt on the sixteenth green during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday, April 8, 2022, in Augusta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.co

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Harold Varner III prepares to putt on the sixteenth green during the second round of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday, April 8, 2022, in Augusta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.co

AUGUSTA - When it comes time, when the world is watching and his golf matters most, Harold Varner will decide what kind of symbol he’ll be. You don’t get to make that call.

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Friday was one such time. He came off windswept Augusta National, a place that has been at the molten center of so many conversations about golf and race, having shot a very trim and useful 71. That put a Black man not named Tiger Woods within reach of the Masters lead. And, so, the question comes: As he walks among the leaders here, does he think about the stage he’s on and what he might represent?

“I represent Harold,” he said. “And I think people can figure out what they take from that.

“I would hope I would represent kids that just don’t have access, that would be my number one thing. If a black 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.”

Once a kid who picked up a taste for the game playing on a Gastonia, N.C., muni course on a $100-per-summer membership, Varner has come to his first Masters and dared to be taken seriously. Good scoring is at a premium and his 2 under total looks pretty sporty in that context.

Along the way, Varner might take the opportunity to put a pin in some easy preconceptions.

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Like that of Woods being the North Star that led him to golf. We lose sight of the fact that it was 25 years ago that Woods claimed his first Masters title and seismically changed the game. Varner was only six at the time, and unconnected to golf.

“He’s not the reason I play golf,” he said, “but he’s the reason I watch golf.”

He’ll tell the story that the most personally meaningful Woods victory was his most recent, here in 2019. And it had little to do with golf. For the Wednesday of that week, Woods has sent a brief uplifting video message to a friend of Varner’s who was dying.

“When he ends up winning, next thing I know I’m crying. People are crying because Tiger won. I’m crying because this kid’s dying and Tiger took the time out of his Wednesday to send him a video,” Varner recalled.

Why as competitive models go, it could be said Varner can lean on another athlete of our age, whose splay-legged leaping logo he wears on his cap. He has Michael Jordan as a sponsor and on his contact list. In fact, it was because he lost a bet to Jordan after North Carolina beat Duke in the NCAA basketball tournament that Varner was compelled to wear Carolina baby blue during Wednesday’s par-3 tournament.

OK, we can conclude that Varner is well-connected. But can he continue to be a factor in this Masters?

Varner had to get here riding a lightning bolt. He went to the 2022 Saudi International ranked 94th in the world, well outside the Masters requirement to be top 50. Then he rolled in a 90-foot eagle putt on the final hole to win the tournament and send his ranking to new heights. Varner, whose best finish on the PGA Tour this year is a T-13 at the Players Championship, is currently ranked 40th.

His only other dalliance with the top of the leaderboard in a major wasn’t one to remember fondly. Paired in the final group on the Sunday of the 2019 PGA Championship, Varner flamed out, shooting an 81.

Bolstered by that win in Saudi Arabia, he thinks he’s a little mentally stronger and more mature to handle being around the Masters lead on the weekend.

“I think winning just breeds winning,” he said. “I never doubted that I could win, but it’s just never happened. I’ve been there, shot some high numbers when it’s mattered a lot, and I guess I matured.”

What he has shown here is the ability to generate some real scoring heat. The man ranked 11th on the PGA Tour in birdie average flashed that Friday, first with a chip in from 18 yards on No. 10 and a canny tee shot to the par 3 16th that landed 50 feet wide of the hole, caught the slope of the green and cozied up to 2 feet of pin. Not the work of a scared or callow Masters first-timer.

“I just want to keep doing what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s only going to get tougher. Everyone’s going to keep talking about it, but I just want to have a chance to win.”

Varner is not alone out here, and for that he owes thanks to various golfing pioneers like the recently departed Lee Elder, honored last year during the Masters ceremonial tee shot. In this Masters there are three players – himself, Woods and Cameron Champ – of African American heritage.

On that score, Varner says, “I think it represents those guys have played really well.

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“Yeah, that’s cool. I would hope to see more, but it’s going to be up to that person. It’s not going to be the color of their skin that’s going to get them there. You’re going to get there on merit, and I think that’s awesome.”

He choses to be more sporting pragmatist than symbol. The bottom line to his place in the game will be written on the big, hand-turned Masters scoreboards this weekend.