Harold Varner III is a regular guy, and Sunday he found himself doing something a lot of regular guys have done.
Searching for a golf ball in the woods at Bethpage Black.
Problem was, he was in the final pairing of the PGA Championship, tied for second and playing alongside the tremendous Brooks Koepka, who began the round with the largest 54-hole lead (seven strokes) in the history of major championships.
So the fact Varner had lost his shot in the trees on the par-five fourth hole was not a helpful development. Koepka went over to assist, but Varner never found his ball. That was in the middle of Varner’s devastating stretch on the front nine of double, double, bogey, par, bogey, par, bogey. The clouds had rolled in, the wind was snapping the flags and his day was pretty much done.
Varner shot an 11-over-par 81 to tumble down the leaderboard into a tie for 36th.
“I thought it was going to be hard when I was on the range, and it was just blowing 30 [mph],” said Varner, who was 14 strokes better Saturday. “My goal was to hit a lot of fairways, and I didn't do a lot of that. The course is just so hard if you don't hit it in play.”
Even so, it was a tremendous tournament for Varner, 28, one of three African American players on the PGA Tour, along with Tiger Woods and Cameron Champ, and the first to earn his tour card via the Web.com Tour.
He’s friends with both Woods and NBA great Michael Jordan, and said he got encouraging texts from both Saturday night. In so many words, each told him to “keep it simple.” He had never reached these heights in a major championship, having played in four before this one. He had failed to make the cut in three of those, and finished tied for 66th in the 2016 British Open.
“I'm sure they probably texted me already,” he said with a smile after his round. “But I'm going to get better. … I'm just going to do what I know what to do. I know what it takes to get there. I don't have to do anything else out of the realm of what I believe I can do.”
Varner has an agreeable personality, but found himself a little annoyed by some of the shouting spectators, many of whom thought they were far more clever than they actually were.
“It's a pretty crazy day,” he said. “I thought it was pretty weird how they were telling Brooks to choke. That's not my cup of tea. I was pulling for him after that. I have a few choice words for that.
“You know, just cheering for him to do bad, I just don't get that. But the fans have been great to me. Obviously, I heard some stuff today, which was awesome. I would have said the same thing if I was seeing some kid just shooting like that. But it's OK. I'm all right with it.”
On multiple occasions, fans yelled “Tiger” as Varner passed. He laughed about hearing that catcall followed by a correction yelled by another fan: “Tiger missed the cut, idiot.”
Varner’s parents didn’t make the trip from Gastonia, N.C. They prefer to watch their son on TV.
“They came to the Wells Fargo,” he said, referring to the tournament two weeks ago at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C. “My dad gets too nervous to watch golf; he would have had a heart attack today, for sure. And then if my mom can’t see [over the crowds] she doesn’t want to come.”
Even though he has yet to win a PGA Tour event, Varner earned $1.3 million in 2016 and $1.2 million last year. Still, he planned to leave New York on Sunday night and fly to North Carolina on Monday to help his folks around the house.
So after getting an up-close view of Koepka mowing down the field, Varner plans to mow his parents’ lawn — a tradition he started last year after the Military Tribute at the Greenbrier.
“I think you’re supposed to take care of your parents,” he said. “I mean, they’re getting old. They took care of me, so any chance I can to help them, make their life easier, I think you should do that.”