AUGUSTA, Ga. — His son had just become a weekend contender at his first-ever Masters when Harold Varner Jr., a 70-year-old man built like an iron, began reminiscing about the fondest memories of the youth of Harold III.
“I always said to him: ‘It’s your putt for the Masters, take it seriously'”, recalls the father.
Harold Jr. stood behind the Augusta National clubhouse with his wife, Patricia, both growing emotional about their son’s journey from a 2-year-old swinging plastic clubs to a 31-year-old man years climbing the Masters rankings on a day when many second-round hopefuls were going, going, going with the wind.
Patricia began to talk about that momentous day that left Harold III under 2 for the tournament, half a dozen strokes shy of Scottie Scheffler’s 36-hole lead, when she burst into tears.
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. If her son can charge from behind and win the Masters on his first crack, Patricia later added: “You might have to call an ambulance for me.”
Harold Jr., once disabled for six years, is the one who taught the game to Harold III. The father practiced his swing in front of a mirror and froze the follow-up to his manual, and the son then did the same. Harold Jr. would replace Harold III’s plastic clubs with a sawn-off 8 iron.
“And that’s how it started,” said Harold Jr.
The kid was carrying that 8-iron everywhere. Harold III began learning the game at Good Park, a course in the town of Akron, Ohio, before his family moved to Gastonia, North Carolina, where a $100 pass landed him earned an all-you-can-eat junior membership to the municipal course. Car salesman Harold Jr. would drop his son off at school on the way to the dealership early in the morning, and Patricia would pick him up in the evening. At 12, Harold III set himself the goal of beating his father by 20 strokes.
“And he beat me by 21,” said Harold Jr.
Harold III became a college star at East Carolina, and in 2015 became the first African-American player to qualify for the PGA Tour from what was then known as the Web.com Tour. . But Varner never wanted to be defined by his run in a largely white country-club sport.
“I would hope [representing] kids who just don’t have access would be my first thing,” he said on Friday. “If a black kid or a white kid wants to be like me, I think that would be inspirational. I hope I behave in a way that they want to be as close to the profession as possible. I think a lot of times in the black community it’s more about economic issues it’s just hard to play golf you can’t just go up and play golf for a reasonable price I’m very committed to helping these people , and if they are black, I will help them, and if they are white, I will help them.
As a universal role model, a 5-foot-8 golfer with a heavyweight game, Varner put himself in position to qualify for the Masters by winning the Saudi Invitational in February with a 92-foot putt for the eagle on the last hole. His mom was watching in bed when that putt fell, and his dad was watching from the couch, and they were both screaming deliriously as their dog ran and ran.
“I couldn’t get out of that bed,” recalls Patricia. She was too busy screaming, “Oh my God, he won.”
Yes, he won. The only downside? As tournament champion, his sponsor and friend Michael Jordan will now demand that Varner give him 10 shots in their matches instead of eight.
It’s still a charming life that the 40th player in the world lives as there aren’t many people on the planet who receive text messages from Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
“Tiger told me the biggest thing,” Varner said. “I asked him, ‘What does it take to win?’ He said, “You stop worrying about winning.” It helped my behavior to just do what I’m good at, play golf, hit the shot it calls for.
Varner struggled the last time he had a chance to win a major, shooting 81 on the final day of the 2019 PGA Championship. But that was then and this is now. He said he thinks about winning the green jacket “all the time” and the pressure to do so has diminished since the birth of his son Liam last fall.
“You just hold it,” Varner said, “and you’re like, ‘He doesn’t give if I have a green jacket or a gold jacket.'”
But Varner’s parents care. Harold Jr. was too nervous to watch his son putt on Friday, so he made sure to repeatedly walk to the next tee when Harold III was on the green. Its good. The old man was supposed to play his traditional Masters week golf in the Charlotte area with some old friends from Akron, but he was happy to cancel.
If Harold III rallies to win the Masters, his father says, “it would be the fulfillment of my dreams for him”. And the culmination of one of the most inspiring journeys in the field.