Sullivan: Two rounds in, Varner reminds us of sport at its best

Jerry Sullivan

Early this week, I popped on ESPN and caught a few minutes of Korean baseball. Sorry, it didn’t cut it for me. No offense to the Koreans, but I didn’t know any of the players. I had no interest in seeing a box score. It just wasn’t real to me.

But by Wednesday, I was getting wired for honest-to-goodness American sports. The kind with a ball. On Thursday morning, the PGA Tour would return from a three-month absence at the Charles Schwab Challenge — better known as The Colonial — in Fort Worth, Texas.

I could hardly wait. I checked the start list and made my picks in the golf pool. This year’s field was the deepest in the Colonial’s history, with 16 of the world’s top 20 players entered, including the top five (Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson.

Clearly, the players were excited to get back for the first time since March 12, when the Players Championship was canceled after one round due to COVID-19. I began checking the scores at 8 a.m. Thursday, minutes after the opening threesomes went off both nines.

The tournament had the feel and the field of a major. After such a long wait for meaningful sports, I was rooting for a great tournament. I had visions of some of golf’s biggest names battling for the Colonial’s plaid jacket on the back nine Sunday afternoon.

By Thursday evening I was rooting like crazy for Harold Varner III.

Varner is one of two African Americans in the Colonial field (Cameron Champ is the other), and one of three in the top 200 men’s golfers in the world. The third black golfer, Tiger Woods, wasn’t quite ready to return this week in Texas.

So there was a bit more attention on Varner leading up to the tournament, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25 and the ensuing two weeks of protest and rioting in cities across the nation.

Varner was quiet for a time, but last week he wrote an eloquent, two-page statement about the crisis in America and shared it on Twitter and Instagram.

Varner, who grew up poor in Gastonia, N.C., said he didn’t want “impulsive, passionate reaction to take precedence over clear-minded thought.” He took time to gather his thoughts. Yes, he was angry. He characterized Floyd’s killing as murder, as “evil incarnate.”

But he also spoke about the black and white men who helped him on his journey in the golf world, buying him clothes and food. Varner said he didn’t see a lot of racism on the Tour and had a lot of very good friends out there.

“You can be against a cop savagely killing a man and also have the perspective to say that burning businesses and police stations is wrong,” he wrote. “You may say one is more or less severe than the other, but there again we must allow ourselves to go beyond this one-or-the-other mentality. Otherwise, we get stuck. We lose direction.

“Sometimes life is not simple and things don’t make sense. How can we call ourselves the greatest country on Earth when our standards fall to senseless killing? That’s a tough and important question. But I still proudly say we aren’t as fractured as it seems.”

Whatever you think of Varner’s position, it was a courageous and heartfelt appeal to people’s better angels. It also put a big spotlight on him when the PGA Tour returned Thursday morning in Fort Worth.

Varner, 29, went out and played the round of his life. He shot a 7-under 63 in the first round to share the lead with Justin Rose. He played bogey-free and hit every green in regulation, becoming the first player in 10 years to go 18 for 18 in GIR at the Colonial.

Imagine the pressure, being a black man in that position. But Varner, who has said in the past that golf does not define him, seemed immune to the pressure. He was inspired, and in Friday’s second round, he turned in another terrific score of 66 and finished alone atop the leaderboard at 11-under.

You figured Varner might come back to Earth after the second-lowest round of his five-year career. Sure enough, he knocked his drive out of bounds and triple-bogeyed his first hole in the second round, dropping out of the lead. Undaunted, he went on to birdie eight holes, including five of the last six.

Varner said he was “fighting for my life” after the triple-bogey 7. But he said there’s no sense in living in the past and you need to learn from golf’s inevitable calamities.

“I've grown up a lot off the course,” he said, “so it makes it easy to make good decisions that prepare you a little bit better for on-the-course stuff. I’m a lot better golfer. I don't really get rattled as much.”

It took a calm, collected adult to put out that statement about the racial unrest in the country. Recovering from a triple bogey isn’t life and death, after all. It’s a game.

But imagine what a story it would be if Varner won this thing. It would be hard to match Tiger Woods’s win at the Masters last year for drama, but the thought of a black man winning his first PGA event at this moment in American’s history would be a tale for the ages.

Varner was asked by a Golf Channel reporter after his opening 63 if he felt he was playing for more than himself this week. He said yes.

Whatever happens, it’ll heighten the excitement for the weekend, with many of the top names in the sport crowded on the leaderboard. The question is whether Varner has the game and resiliency to pull it off.

Last year, Varner was in the last group at the PGA Championship with Brooks Koepka, tied for second heading into Sunday at Bethpage Black. He shot 81 in windy conditions and fell all the way to 36th place.

Varner, who has yet to win on the PGA Tour but has a win in Europe, is said to be one of the most popular players on tour. He said he wants to be an ambassador not just for minorities, but for the sport of golf itself.

He’s done a good job of it the last two days. If you're a sports fan who loves golf and a great story, it’s hard to beat it. Those last three months? This is what we were missing.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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