Harold Varner III and the 92-foot putt that could get him a Masters invitation
By Michael Arkush
Harold Varner III did not make the cut in the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. He did not come close. He started bogey, double bogey, bogey on his first three holes last Thursday on the way to a 6-over 77. Despite rebounding with a 69 on Friday, he missed the cut by four strokes.
It did not matter. He had already made the putt that just might make his year.
The putt, from 92 feet, was for eagle. It came Feb. 6 on the final hole of the Saudi International at the Royal Greens Golf Club in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia, giving him a one-shot victory over Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion. From off the green and at such a long distance, Varner said, his goal was to two-putt and force a playoff. The ball climbed the slope, and once it was over the hill, he realized it was going to be close.
“When it went in,” he said last week, “I just lost my mind.”
But he also gained a great deal. Besides winning $1 million and rising for the first time to the top 50 in the world rankings — he is at No. 47 — Varner, 31, may also qualify for the Masters. The top 50 players on March 28 will earn invitations.
That “would be a massive deal,” said Varner, who has never competed in the event.
The victory in Saudi Arabia was the second in his professional career. The first came in the 2016 Australian PGA Championship.
“We both know how good he is and how hard he works,” said Chris Rice, his caddie for the last year and a half. “It was just a matter of time before he managed to get the job done. The next step is to win on the PGA Tour.”
Not surprisingly, Varner was swamped with text messages and calls after his win. He figured the attention would die down after two or three days, but his fellow players at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades last week were still congratulating him.
“It was a cool moment,” Varner said, referring to the win. “I want to do it again.”
Varner, who is in his seventh season on the PGA Tour, has had his share of peaks and valleys. In the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage State Park Black Course in Farmingdale, New York, he made it into the final group Sunday, playing with the eventual champion, Brooks Koepka. The week did not end well for him. Varner shot 81 to finish in a tie for 36th. Some players might have become discouraged after posting a score like that on such a grand stage. Not Varner.
“That was my best finish in a major,” he said. “I took a lot from it.”
Varner, who grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, was a star at East Carolina University, where he was the Conference USA player of the year. He turned professional in 2012 and later joined what was known as the Web.com Tour. His best finishes on that tour were two for second place. Eventually, he earned playing privileges for the PGA Tour.
One of only four players of African American descent on the tour — the others are Tiger Woods, Cameron Champ and Joseph Bramlett — Varner is aware of the influential role that a mentor can play in a young golfer’s development. When he was 16, he started to work with Bruce Sudderth, who had been the head professional at Gaston Country Club in Gastonia, which is near Charlotte.
“I had unbelievable instruction,” Varner said. “He was retired and came back to teach. He taught me everything.”
Sudderth, who was watching on television, said he “jumped out of my seat” when Varner converted the eagle putt in Saudi Arabia. He acknowledged the role he has had in Varner’s career.
“I feel, for a period of time, I was like his second father,” Sudderth said, “as far as giving him advice on how to be a professional, how to act in tournaments.”
Varner has also formed a friendship with another golfer from North Carolina, six-time NBA champion Michael Jordan. Varner gives him 10 strokes per round.
“You don’t want to lose to him,” he said, “because you won’t hear the end of it.”
After his victory in Saudi Arabia, Varner took a roughly 20-hour plane trip, with two stops, to Arizona to compete in the Phoenix Open. “Yeah, it wasn’t very smart,” he said. Varner shot rounds of 75 and 69, and missed the cut by four shots.
At Riviera, Varner was determined to play well in the second round after his opening 77, even though the odds were against his making the cut. He had a promising start, with birdies on his first two holes, but he bogeyed Nos. 4 and 6 to end any hope of getting to the weekend.
Watson, who also missed the cut, had some strong words for his friend.
“I got onto him,” Watson said. “I said: ‘You can’t be celebrating, man. These young guys are hungry. That’s one victory. You got to keep playing.’ Everybody out here loves him. It’s a no-brainer to try to help him succeed.”
Varner said he would take a few weeks off before playing in the Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, starting March 10.
“He gave me some good advice,” Varner said, referring to Watson. “I think you should always play with a chip on your shoulder. I was just hung over from winning a little bit. Got to build on that, and I’m learning that.”