June 10-16, 2013
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
ARDMORE, Pa. – For Harold Varner III, it’s all about the opportunities.
When he got involved with the First Tee Program in Charlotte, N.C., the experience helped refine the skills which have now brought him to golf’s biggest test – the 113th U.S. Open Championship at Merion.
Varner finished second in a three-for-one playoff in the Rockville, Md., sectional, and on Monday took his spot in the field of 156 when he was added as an alternate. When he tees off Thursday, it will mark his first start in a major championship.
“I want to have my chance to win. That’s the goal,” Varner said after completing Tuesday’s practice round. “These guys, they’re good, but this is where I want to be … I have an opportunity and I want to make the most of it.”
Golf was Varner’s sport of choice since football and basketball were out of the question and his father began guiding him toward the fairways and greens.
“My dad got me started, and obviously, when I got a little older, I got addicted to it. And then I couldn’t play football and I couldn’t play basketball. Wasn’t tall enough, wasn’t strong enough, so golf seemed like a good fit. My dad was addicted to it, so I’d just go out there to try to keep up with him. And, here we are now.”
The younger Varner was good enough to play in the Bill Dickey Scholarship Tournament in Orlando, an event named for one of the pioneers in modern-day minority golf. Varner also volunteered for First Tee of Charlotte during the last semester of his senior year in high school, about half an hour from his home in nearby Gastonia.
“I was fortunate enough to have someone like my dad, who got me exposed to it. Some people in the inner city, they just don’t have the opportunity. The First Tee does a really good job of that,” he said. “So, if I could help out, why not?”
The First Tee also provided Varner some early exposure to professional golf. In 2007, he joined with Morris Hatalsky to capture the pro-junior portion of The First Tee Open at Pebble Beach.
Aside from the win, Varner took home some valuable advice.
“Obviously, it got me some exposure,” he said. “(Hatalsky) taught me a lot on how to just handle yourself and how to go about playing out there which, at the time, I had no clue. I was just a little kid fortunate to play Pebble Beach.”
Varner further tuned up his game in Gastonia, where one course allowed golfers to play Monday through Friday for $100 per week during the summer. At 16 years old, he met the head pro at Gaston Country Club, who started giving him lessons.
“I just got really good. I was fortunate enough to go to school and had a really good coach,” he said. “I just kept getting better. That’s the main thing.”
At East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., Varner capped his career by winning 2012 Conference USA golfer of the year, the first golfer in the school’s history to win that honor. Two years earlier, he had captured the N.C. Amateur title.
Varner is also the second ECU alum to compete in a U.S. Open. John Maginnes played in the Open in 1995, 2002 and 2005.
Now standing on the verge of the biggest weekend of his golf career, Varner has a clear view of what The First Tee meant to him.
“I’d say opportunity. People can dream it. They think they can do it. The First Tee gives you a legit chance to do what you want to do – go to college and then play golf for the pros. I thought that was so cool at the time.
“Opportunity is the only thing you have. That’s it,” Varner said. “What you do with it is up to you. That’s what this week is. I’m going to make the best of it.”