Since breaking onto the PGA Tour in 2015, Harold Varner III has become one of the most popular players in the game. In a recent Golf Digest list of the nicest guys on the tour, the 32-year-old Gastonia, North Carolina, native was identified by his peers as the “Player you would most want to have dinner with.” In a sport where he is only one of a handful of Black players on the major tours, he stands out less for his race than for his genial manner and folksy charm.
Varner is earnest and direct, traits he learned from his working-class parents, Harold Jr. and Patricia, who raised him with his sister in a modest 900-square-foot house in Gastonia. Without private club memberships and financial resources to travel on the elite junior circuits, Varner developed his game mostly at public courses and in high school matches before creating a solid collegiate career at East Carolina University. As a child, he created his own image of Augusta National’s 18th hole by hitting balls from his driveway through a narrow shoot of trees and toward a city water tank.
“That house — and all the special things about growing up there — has always stayed with me,” he wrote in The Players’ Tribune.
Earlier this week, Varner evoked those humble beginnings when he announced that he was leaving the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf, the upstart tour backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and headed by former No. 1 golfer in the world, Greg Norman.
“The opportunity to join LIV Golf is simply too good of a financial breakthrough for me to pass by,” he wrote on Instagram. “I know what it means to grow up without much. This money is going to ensure that my kid and future Varners will have a solid base to start on — and a life I could have only dreamt about growing up.
“It’ll also help fund many of the programs I’m building with my Foundation,” he continued. “I’ll continue to forge pathways for kids interested in golf. This note is a receipt for that.”
On Friday, Varner will begin his first event on the LIV Tour at The International outside Boston, where he will compete for a $4 million winner’s check in a 54-hole, no-cut event with 48 players. In February, he made a 92-foot eagle on the 18th hole to win the Saudi International for $1 million, his largest career check in a single event. During the 2021-2022 PGA Tour season, Varner earned $2.3 million in 23 events. Over seven full PGA Tour seasons, Varner has earned $10.4 million in 189 starts.
For signing with LIV, Varner received an upfront payment that easily exceeded his career PGA Tour earnings and he has the potential to make millions at each tournament through the combination of his individual performances and a team format.
The emergence of LIV Golf has drawn attention for its controversial ties to the Saudi government, and it has caused an unprecedented disruption in the game. Players who were Ryder Cup teammates and neighbors are now pitted against one another in a battle between LIV and the PGA Tour over the future of golf. Varner now faces the suspension from the PGA Tour — a playground he has spent most of life pursuing.
His financial motives for joining the new tour are not unique. Most of the players have said similar things about the attraction to the money. He’s not the only LIV golfer to have grown up in a modest home without a country club membership.
Yet Varner’s defection to LIV Golf illuminates in many ways some of the stark realities of Black participation in the game. For as long as Black golfers have been in the pro game, a lack of financial wherewithal hindered to their ability to compete on an equal playing ground with their white counterparts. Many of them faced the barriers of Jim Crow segregation laws that limited their access to quality courses and the Caucasians-only clause that kept them off the PGA Tour, but they have also faced basic survival challenges.
Charlie Sifford, one of Varner’s heroes and a fellow North Carolinian, understood those twin legacies better than most. Even as he fought to break the racial barrier on the PGA Tour in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he struggled to provide for his family with the meager purses on the Black golf circuit. Lee Elder had many stories about his gambling escapades on the golf course because that’s how he hustled to survive before he could make a real living in the game. Most of today’s Black pro circuit players from the Advocates Professional Golf Association are struggling financially to keep their dreams alive of playing on the PGA Tour.
Finances have not just been an enduring theme for Black tour pros. The lack of financial resources to play the game has long been cited as why more Black golfers are not playing the game in numbers proportional to their population in the United States. With the LIV money, Varner has pledged that he will use his charitable foundation to address some of these inequities in the game for youths.
Following his announcement this week, Varner said that he was disappointed by some of the response that he had received in social media about his decision. “I hate being hated,” he said during an interview at the LIV Boston event.
“I’d rather not even be known than to be hated.”
Perhaps, the irony of that statement is that too many Black players have never gotten the chance to be known at his level because of both hate and the money that would have allowed to them to prosper at any level.
Everybody may not like Varner’s decision to take the LIV money, but for those who understand where Black players have been over the years will have some compassion for this young man who is living his golf ancestors’ wildest dreams.