It was familiar territory for Harold Varner III, climbing to the upper reaches of a PGA Tour leaderboard only to come tumbling down.
But that experience — most notably his collapse in the final round of the PGA Championship last year — served him well Saturday when he weathered a significant rough patch on the back nine at Riviera Country Club to finish with back-to-back birdies.
Varner, who survived a stretch of three bogeys in four holes, closed his round with pinpoint approach shots on Nos. 17 and 18, then drained the putts to stay within striking range of his first tour victory. He’s tied for fourth with Russell Henley at nine under, one shot behind co-leaders Adam Scott, Matt Kuchar and Rory McIlroy.
Varner was tied for second heading into Sunday at last year’s PGA Championship and playing alongside leader Brooks Koepka in the final pairing. But the wheels came off at Bethpage Black, and Varner shot an 81 to tie for 36th.
Nightmarish as that was, Varner draws on the experience now — as he did last August at the Northern Trust, when he finished tied for third.
“It’s massive,” he said Saturday of the lesson from his major championship meltdown. “I used it a lot at Northern Trust. Had a really good chance there. It’s nice to get in that position and play well. I’ve gotten in that position and played poorly. To get in that position and play well, it’s only going to help.
“It doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to play well [Sunday]. But it guarantees that I’m going to be a little bit better, a little bit more mindful of what we’re doing. Experience is priceless.”
This marks the first time in 2020 that Varner has made it to a weekend. He failed to make the cut in his first four tournaments of the year. He has learned to take nothing for granted.
“Just embrace it: Golf’s hard,” he said. “It’s just not going to go your way every time. The biggest thing for me is just keep a good attitude. I still love playing golf. It’s not the end of the world, so I’ve always tried to have that perspective. It’s a privilege to be playing golf on the PGA Tour.”
Varner, 29, is one of four tour players of African American descent, along with Tiger Woods, Cameron Champ, and Joseph Bramlett. Varner is the first to earn his tour card via the Web.com Tour.
He shot a 69 on Saturday with three sets of back-to-back birdies, along with four bogeys. His three rounds have gone 67, 68. 69.
A big NFL fan who played college golf at East Carolina, Varner has struck up a friendship with new Washington Redskins coach Ron Rivera, longtime coach of the Carolina Panthers. They had dinner together twice last week.
“After I shot 81, I went to [Panthers] practice two days later,” Varner said, “and he’s like, `'No, man. Keep learning. Keep having fun. Everyone thinks you should be doing this. Do what’s best for you.’”
Varner, among the most agreeable guys around, also has a sense of humor. He has a head cover on his three-wood that looks like a Cabbage Patch Kids doll. He got the cover as a gift six years ago from a college teammate who was caddying for him and named it Gerald.
“He was like, `We’re going to put it on the three-wood this week,’ and it’s been on there ever since,” Varner said. “We get a new one every year-and-a-half. Now, we’ve put it on a shirt.”
The puppet even has its own Twitter account, referring to Gerald as an “emotional support head cover,” although Varner has no association with that.
“I have no clue who runs that account, that’s the funniest part,” he said. “He or she hasn’t tweeted in months. They’ve only tweeted good stuff, and sometimes it’s pretty funny, so I haven’t tried to track down who it is.”
He has bigger concerns at the moment, with his first victory again within reach.
“I’m getting way more comfortable,” he said. “It’s not all fun and games though there. It’s business.”