Why a Harold Varner win on Sunday would resonate far beyond the golf world

Harold Varner lines up a putt on the 8th hole at Colonial Country Club on Saturday.

Harold Varner lines up a putt on the 8th hole at Colonial Country Club on Saturday.

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Saturday morning, I did a radio show with some fellow golf heads. The fellas were in Arizona. I was here.

So many good stories out of Colonial, one of them said.

Oh yeah, said I. Spieth trying to win again. Rory playing well. A tournament with no fans. A timeless course. Live sport on CBS. The Tour trying to keep the playing field germ-free –

Yes, said the gent. And Harold Varner!

By which he meant (and pretty much said) this:

Harold Varner, a black golfer, is trying to win for the first time in a week when the PGA Tour has made unprecedented nods to the nation’s social unrest after the death of a black man, George Floyd, under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.

The bulb in my head flickered with some proof of life. Of course — of course! 

A little after 1 p.m., Bobby Patton, a stout white-haired oilman (and part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers), introduced the day’s final twosome to maybe two dozen people hanging around the first tee. Jordan Spieth, as engaging as any player on Tour, a young golf star who sees a world beyond the scorecard. And Harold Varner, Tour leader in a little-known statistical category called Most Alive. He was the leader by one through 36 holes.

The near-silence to Patton’s call was a little sad, a reminder of where exactly we are. (In the middle of a pandemic.) I clapped. What can I tell you?

No black golfer has ever won at Colonial. Tiger Woods has played in the event only once, in 1997, his first full year on Tour. Pete Brown, in 1964, was the first black golfer to ever play Colonial, as the players have called it forever. (Officially, it’s the Charles Schwab Challenge.) Brown got in by winning a Tour event called the Waco Turner Open the previous week. (Named for a Mr. Waco Turner, an Oklahoma oilman.) 

I had the privilege of interviewing Pete Brown late in his life. He was living in a house on the outskirts of Augusta that was given to him by Jim Dent. Pete Brown traveled the Tour with Charlie Sifford. Tiger’s son is named for Charlie Sifford, as Woods mentioned at the Rose Garden last year, when President Trump gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When I noted to Harold once that he and Tiger were the only two black golfers on Tour, he said, “Every time you talk about race, you’re just making race more of a thing.” (It wasn’t an accusation. He had a dream.) Pete Brown’s wife, Margaret, told me her husband endured taunts and violent threats en route to his Waco Turner win. She said that Mr. Waco Turner himself personally oversaw her husband’s safety.

There’s more in all this than I could possibly unpack on deadline on a Saturday night. As I type, here in the press tent, a muted TV is showing the local six o’clock CBS news with a story about HV3 and his prominence this week, on the golf course and off it, too. Such a preppy name. The third. Just like Thurston Howell.

Harold has a leaping Michael Jordan on his shirt, his hat, his shoes. His black bag has Grove XXIII stenciled in electric blue on it. That’s Michael Jordan’s course in South Florida, where the caddies traverse the course on motorized scooters. Varner is a Jordan-branded golfer, the only one, really. On Saturday, he was wearing tight black pants and a tight purple shirt. It looked uncomfortable on a hot Texas day, but still he pulled it off. He has a style all his own. He and Spieth chatted their way around the course. On the 1st, both teed from the left marker, the heels of their shoes in the left rough, as they tried to smash drawing tee shots to start the day on a short par-5. Varner started the day with a 4. Good times.

The golf feels less intense, without fans. A sign near the club’s entrance read ROAD CLOSED FOR PRIVATE EVENT. Well, it’s sort of true. An electronic scoreboard had a pitch from CDW, an IT company, that read PEOPLE WHO GET IT. Not your perfect pandemic message. A downtown sandwich shop, only 4 miles away from a Tour course that’s actually within a city’s borders, reads YOU’RE HUNGRY. WE’RE OPEN. Man, does that say it all.

Varner made that birdie on one, then made pars on every hole going out. A par on 10, on 11, on 12. The ground was hard and getting harder. The day was hot and getting hotter. But the greens, well-watered, were soft. Pars were not going to be enough. Varner’s tee shot on 13 was a smoked iron into a warm breeze, over a pond and over the green. Dust and dirt and grass blades floating back at him in follow-through. He did well to make a par there. His only bogey of the day came on the next hole.

Even par on Saturday was not a disaster but not what he needed. He trails the leader, Xander Schauffele, by two. Five other guys are one shot behind Schauffele. The chances of Harold Varner winning his first PGA Tour event on Sunday, on this particular important Sunday, are slim. But not slim and none. Slim is not out of town.

Something good will happen on Sunday. That’s part of the joy of professional golf. Good things happen on Sundays, no matter where the rest of the world is at. You’re hungry. Golf’s on.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@GOLF.com.

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Michael Bamberger

Golf.com

Michael Bamberger writes for GOLF Magazine and contributes to GOLF.com. He also participates in podcasts, primarily in tandem with Alan Shipnuck. Earlier in his career, he was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated for 23 years and a reporter on The Philadelphia Inquirer for nine years before that. He has written a half-dozen books about golf and other subjects. His magazine work has been featured in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. He holds a U.S. patent on a utility golf club called the E-Club. In 2016, he was given the Donald Ross Award by the American Society of Golf Course Architects, the organization’s highest honor.