Harold Varner III had just finished one of the best rounds of the day, was signing autographs for children and telling them, “Thanks for coming today.”
He was surprised and impressed when he learned that a dad and two kids had awakened at 3:30 a.m. and come down from New Paltz just to watch him play in the 7:20 a.m. group.
“It’s pretty crazy. Pretty insane,” he said after having shot 4-under-par 67 Friday to reach 3 under through two rounds of The Barclays at Bethpage Black.
Eric Watson, an administrator at Vassar College, and daughter Aracely, 13, and son Oliver, 10, said they just couldn’t resist. They have followed the PGA Tour rookie all year because they just loved his story.
“We watched an ESPN documentary about a guy we never really heard of,” Oliver said. “Then my dad went and looked him up. We really got interested. My dad had the PGA Tour app and we favorited him. We’ve been following him ever since.”
Varner has drawn more than the average rookie’s share of attention this year because, with Tiger Woods out after back surgery, he is the only active African-American on tour. He has been asked about it at just about every stop and has handled the questions honestly and patiently.
“I don’t like it sometimes but it’s part of it. You want to be great, bring it with you,” he said outside the Bethpage clubhouse as fellow pros fist-bumped him, lifted him up by the waist or just said hello. Even Varner saw the irony in the fact he made the PGA Championship this year as an alternate because Woods announced he was not playing. At the time, he told the Charlotte Observer, “It was just a coincidence that one black guy goes out and another goes in.”
The rookie has consistently said he does not see himself as carrying a torch. He views himself as someone who has something to offer every person he meets. The Watsons, who are white, can vouch for that.
“I’m a former college soccer coach and I’m always looking for guys who are hard workers, guys who can say nothing came easy. To see him grinding, being self-taught, which in this day and age is rare,” Eric Watson said. “Our goal for him this year was to be in the top 125. And here he is, tied for [10th after the second round].”
Varner’s parents signed him up for a youth program at Gastonia Municipal Course — $100 a year for all the golf you want to play — and his dad would drop him off on the way to his job as a car salesman and pick him up on the way home.
He developed a game that produced an eagle, three birdies and a bogey on the Black Course Friday. “Hitting it far helps, and hitting it super straight,” he said. “I’m just excited to be playing well. I feel like I was trending in the right direction and I’m excited for the weekend. I’m excited for good things to happen.”