IT’S the smile that sticks with you. The unorthodox swing – a short, compact, forceful motion that looks he’s waving a carnival high-striker hammer – catches the eye. His half-hitch, half-saunter stride also captivates. Even with golf’s engaging crop of players, his interaction with fans – stopping countless times for handshakes, autographs and photos – is noticeable. But it’s Harold Varner III’s smile – a gleam that would shine through a solar eclipse – that sticks with you.
One that was especially bright late in the just-completed US PGA Tour season. And why wouldn’t he be smiling? That Varner reached the second leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs signals an incontrovertible truth: the clock didn’t strike midnight on his Cinderella story.
To many tour players, the playoffs represent a business trip, the start of a gruelling, laborious postseason. For a select few, however, it’s a celebration. It’s a group of guys who have spent the past months wondering if the horizon will bring another season in the top league or a loathsome journey to the reserves. To the lucky few whose bubbles didn’t burst, those four weeks are like the Academy Awards: just earning the invite makes them a winner. And rightfully so: they have secured their tour card – and to a bigger extent, their future – for another year.
This year that crowd included a Ryder Cupper in J.J. Henry, former top-10 player Rory Sabbatini and Martin Flores, who locked down his status thanks to an ace on his 70th hole in the last week of the regular season. Also in this bunch was Varner, who picked up the sport at age nine thanks to a local course offering a $100 junior membership. By 16, he was working on the range at a country club where the pro started giving him lessons, and his game took off. He eventually earned a scholarship to East Carolina University, and won Conference USA Player of the Year honours in his senior season.
After working his way up through golf’s professional ranks, he grabbed his tour invite in 2015 at 25 years old, and won last year’s Australian PGA Championship at RACV Royal Pines for his first professional victory. Varner became the first international visitor in 17 years to lift the Joe Kirkwood Cup after New Zealand’s Greg Turner won in 1999. He also became the first American to win the Australian PGA Championship since Hale Irwin in 1978.
Varner seemed destined for big things.
Unfortunately, after a respectable rookie campaign on the US Tour and his win at Royal Pines last December, the 27-year-old struggled with his game in his homeland this year. Varner posted just a single top-10 finish in 31 appearances, missing the cut in almost a third of his starts. Though he had improved his iron play, his short game went south, ranking outside the top 140 in strokes gained: around-the-green and putting. His improbable dream was on life support until that lone top-10 result (a tie for 10th) materialised at the final tournament before the playoff events. For at least one more season, Varner – and the drive he represents – will run with the big boys.
Australia and the Gold Coast quickly fell in love with Harold Varner III when he won the Australian PGA Championship last year, and the charismatic American will return this month to continue his love affair and defend his title.
This will be the third time the affable American has visited the Gold Coast. His runner-up result in 2015 followed by his win last year where he held off home favourite Adam Scott and chased down another proud Queenslander, Andrew Dodt, has seen Varner treat fans to some exceptional golf.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back to the Gold Coast for the Australian PGA Championship,” Varner said.
“Winning in Australia for my first professional victory was pretty special and it gave me the chance to play in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in my hometown in Akron, Ohio. I wouldn’t have had that opportunity without winning this tournament, hopefully I can go back-to-back and secure a spot in to Akron again.”
‘Winning in Australia for my first professional victory was pretty special and it gave me the chance to play in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in my hometown’ – Harold Varner III
Varner’s laid-back demeanour saw the large galleries at Royal Pines embrace the young American. Testament to his fun-loving attitude, he was also a favourite with many of the volunteers working during the week of the tournament.
“I love playing golf and I love having fun. It’s easy at the Australian PGA Championship; the tournament has a great vibe and everyone is very friendly, cheering me on even though I had two great Aussie players, Andrew (Dodt) and Adam (Scott) just behind me on the leaderboard. The Aussie fans and volunteers were just great, it’s almost like playing in front of a home crowd again, I can’t wait to get back.”
Varner will have plenty of chances to get more trophies. But he doesn’t need hardware for that designation. Simply being inside the ropes makes Varner a winner, a walking paragon of all the good the game can be.
And Varner knows it, too, irrefutably evident in that smile.