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PGA Championship: Harold Varner III enjoying his best performance at a major

Harold Varner III drives off the fourth tee during the third round of the PGA Championship golf tour
Harold Varner III drives off the fourth tee during the third round of the PGA Championship on May 18.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)

This isn’t just an impressive showing in the PGA Championship, it’s a huge step forward for Harold Varner III.

After three rounds, he’s tied for second at five under, by far his best performance in a major. In his previous four majors, he failed to make the cut three times and finished tied for 66th in the 2016 British Open.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Varner said Saturday after shooting a three-under 67 at Bethpage Black. “It’s going to be a great day no matter what happens. This is what you practice for, and obviously I’m super excited. Just need to go home and eat and do it again.”

Varner, 28, is the first African-American golfer to advance to the PGA Tour via the Web.com Tour. He loves the challenge of trying to chase down Brooks Koepka, who at 12 under has the largest 54-hole lead (seven strokes) in majors history.

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“It’s great for golf,” Varner said. “If you don’t go to sleep and think, ‘Man, this makes me want to work harder, if I can be that good,’ then I don’t know why you’re playing.You can’t sit there and just weep and be like, ‘He’s so much better.’ I think that’s going to push you.”

The golfer who most inspired Varner didn’t make it to the weekend: Tiger Woods came one shot shy of making the cut.

“The reason I play golf is because of my dad,” Varner said. “The reason I watch golf is because of Tiger.”

One that got away

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Phil Mickelson has moved on to Pebble Beach.

He’s at six over after three rounds, so it’s only natural that he would be thinking about next month’s U.S. Open, as that’s the only major he hasn’t won.

Just like Jordan Spieth needs only to win the PGA to be the sixth golfer to complete a career slam — winning all four majors — Mickelson has a spot in his trophy case for a U.S. Open victory. He has six runner-up finishes in that tournament.

“There’s not much I could do right now that would do anything to redefine my career, but there’s one thing I could do, and that would be to win a U.S. Open,” Mickelson said Saturday. “So if I were to do that, it would change the way I view my career because there are only, what, five guys that ever won all the majors. And you have to look at those guys differently. And if I ever join that crowd — and the only way to do that is to win a U.S. Open — it would redefine my career.”

This time, Mickelson will be returning to the place where he won the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am this year.

“We’re on a golf course at Pebble where you really don’t need to hit a lot of drivers,” he said. “And you need to putt poa annua greens very well with a lot of break, which is something I’ve done well. So it gives me a chance … it lessens my weakness, which is hitting fairways. It makes that not quite as important because you don’t have to hit drivers there.”

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That said, he acknowledged that winning at Pebble Beach in February is different than doing so in June, when the course is set up for a U.S. Open.

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“It just plays so different in that when it’s wet and you can fly the balls on the green and stop them no problem, you can stop them out of the rough,” he said. “But you cannot do that in the U.S. Open, as firm as they get. And the fairways are much tighter.

“And in February I’m hitting drivers and hitting it as far as I can, having a lot shorter shots in. Whereas here I’ll be trying to hit fairways with irons and hybrids and such just to get the ball in play, and then coming into those small greens with a lot more on your club. So it’s a whole different golf course where you’re playing almost defense, playing for par first and then trying to make birdie, whereas in February, it is full bore, all out, go make birdie on every single hole.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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