BY: GARRETT JOHNSTON
Harold Varner III is easy to root for. The 27- year-old is full of energy, personality and wit. He’s even got a headcover named Gerald with an alter-ego.
“His personality is unbelievable, one of the best I’ve seen,” Varner’s caddie Ray Farnell says. Whether he’s doing his Cam Newton “dab” impression or fighting his way into this past year’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, the jovial young PGA Tour star is always enjoying himself.
The fifth-year pro from Akron, Ohio just finished his second season of full exemption on the PGA Tour in September. The son of a used car salesman – who later moved with his family to Gastonia, North Carolina – first broke par at age 13. It came at Gastonia Municipal, where he grew up playing.
Varner enjoys golf, but he also loves taking his new boat out on the lake or the inter-coastal near his new home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. In his down time he also likes to watch his favorite movie,“Bad Boyz II.”Varner’s taste in music varies, though Drake sticks out as his favorite artist. So what does he jam to when he’s given tournament cars on tour?
“Depends on who’s listening,” Varner smiles. “If my parents are in the car I’m playing old school Temptations, if my friends are in there we’re listening to rap.”
Varner is the first African-American to earn his card via the Web.com Tour, and that topic is not something he shies away from – though he’d rather get asked questions about his golf game.
The East Carolina product wrote a piece in the Players Tribune about how his $100 junior membership as a youth in Gastonia was what truly grows the game. Varner wants to be considered a winner and not just a good black golfer.
In 2017, he made 19 of 31 cuts for $918,779 and finished 90th in the FedEx Cup. During his rookie season of 2015-2016 he finished 75th with $1,327,320 in earnings.
Varner did however play his way into the 2016-2017 FedEx Cup Playoffs, jumping from 138 to 123, with a pivotal tie for 10th at the Wyndham Championship that got him in the top 125 and assured full-time status for 2017-18. The next week in New York, Varner moved up 32 spots with a tie for 20th at the Northern Trust.
The bubbly Varner gladly played the role of playoff poster-child for those couple weeks, but his Cinderella streak ultimately ended at the Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston.
So how does Varner practice? “I found out what worked for me and I don’t try to do anything spectacular,” Varner says of his pre-round warmup, which usually lasts between 50 minutes to an hour. “If I’m not feeling comfortable practicing something that day I’ll usually extend that specific practice time,” Varner says. “If my putting is off, I will putt more.”
But typically Varner starts with 10 minutes of putting, 25 minutes on the range, 25 minutes of chipping and a few putts and then he’s on the first tee. Varner always starts his range session with his most lofted club, the 58-degree wedge, beginning with 50-60 yard pitch shots.
As his range warm up progresses, Farnell – a 13-year PGA Tour veteran caddie – ensures Varner switches up which irons they warm up with. “Some days we go odd and others we go even clubs, but we always finish with hybrid, 3-wood, then driver.”
Farrell is adamant that one’s irons and grooves will look different over time and wear down unevenly if you don’t mix them up by session.
So what’s Varner’s biggest goal on the range? “When I’m hitting balls I’m really just trying to get loose,” Varner says. “I don’t really care too much about where it goes. You just want to see what you’ve got that day.
“My routine is nothing crazy, I’m just rearing to go, do my thing and get on the course.” In the precious last minute before he walks to the first tee, Varner will often place a very short putt down from 1-2 feet to make it.
“I guess I just always wanted to make a putt before I went to the course,” Varner says. “It’s funny because I’ve never really thought about why I do it.”
Not a bad idea. It’s always nice to hear the sound of the cup. Actually, Bryson DeChambeau employed this right before his first ever round at The Masters in 2016 before he played with then-defending champ Jordan Spieth.
At the start of his putting practice sessions, Varner will lay down an alignment rod and practice long putts with many golf balls. Those first few putts are all about getting his feel. He will then practice 20-30 putts from about 10 feet. When he returns at the end of his practice session he uses only one ball and focusing on making short putts.
“I feel like the first few putts I’m just trying to get lined up and set up to the ball correctly, you know, get the pace of the greens,” Varner says. On the practice range, Varner only uses alignment sticks and rarely puts TrackMan to work. He will employ it when he’s testing a new club or struggling with his wedges.
Varner will typically see his swing coach in Gastonia two times a month to work on his fundamentals. Whatever Varner’s working on, one thing remains constant: He loves his driver best. “I just love hitting driver, it sets up the whole game,” Varner says. “When you drive it well you give yourself way more looks and opportunities.”
Power of Personality
So why do we like Varner? His personality seems a big part. Varner entered Sunday of his first PGA Tour event as a card-carrying member, the 2015 Safeway Open, with a chance to win. After a disappointing 7-over 79 on Sunday, he was still chatty with fans and signed autographs for some time.
“His personality is so good it gets to the point where the time he’s giving back to people may actually hurt him,” Farnell says. “He’s an open book. It’s good to see that, but t’s hard when we’re out at tournaments, whether it’s fans or friends, he’ll say ‘hi’ to everyone and give the autograph. “But that’s his best quality, his personality, so it’s a double-edged sword I guess.”
That may be, but there’s an infectious energy about the guy. Whether you find him playing his favorite course on the planet at Diamond Creek in the mountains above Asheville, North Carolina or see him at a PGA Tour event, you’ll find he’s a fun individual to be around.