Skins game

Harold Varner takes aim at becoming one of the rarest things in golf — a black pro.

By Spencer Campbell

Teenage golfers with skill, ambition and wherewithal play American Junior Golf Association tournaments. The Braselton, Ga.-based nonprofit holds multiday events on elite courses from Maine to California that attract college coaches and sponsors such as Polo and Rolex. The usual entry fee is $280, but that doesn’t include qualifying fees ($95 to $120) and expenses (many teens travel the circuit like PGA Tour pros). Harold Varner III’s folks couldn’t afford that, so he competed in Carolinas Golf Association tournaments, where entry fees are no more than $120. It was at one of those that Press McPhaul first noticed him. Varner was 14 or 15, not much taller than his golf bag and, East Carolina University’s men’s golf coach swears, wearing tennis shoes. His loopy swing produced a powerful and occasionally wayward hook. “But he was having more fun than anyone else.”

Something else that made Varner stand out: He’s black. Though he starred at Forestview High School in Gastonia, finishing runner-up at the state tournament his junior and senior years, top college programs didn’t recruit him. McPhaul pursued polished players, too, but they passed on ECU. So he took a flier on the energetic kid he had spotted a few years before. “Press called me and was, like, ‘I want you to come to East Carolina,’” Varner recalls. “Deal! I’ll forever be indebted to them because of that.”

Shortly after arriving in Greenville in 2008, he went to McPhaul’s office to discuss his ultimate goal: the PGA Tour. In the preceding three years, 3,859 men had attempted to qualify for golf’s elite circuit. Ninety-four succeeded. The best players in the world stood only a 60% chance of making it. Men of his race nearly never did. Still, McPhaul began outlining steps — such as exercise, eating right, practicing — in the lower-left corner of a grease board in his office. He worked diagonally across it, creating stairs to the opposite corner, where he ran out of room. He had to scribble the final step, “PGA Tour,” on the cinder-block wall above it. “It sort of stuck up there in perpetuity. He had a really long staircase to climb.”

Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.-based PGA Tour Inc. barred black players until 1961, when Charlotte-born Charles Sifford became its first African-American member, but the sport clung to segregation for decades after. “Golf has many ways of keeping the black man in his place,” Sifford wrote in his 1992 autobiography, Just Let Me Play. “We’re still not invited to some tournaments, and the endorsements and appearance fees and special bonuses of golf continue to elude us.” In 1990, a black kid from California shared Sifford’s sense of exclusion. “Every time I go to a major country club,” Tiger Woods told a reporter, “you can always feel it, you can always sense it. People are always staring at you. ‘What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be here.’” He won the Masters Tournament by 12 strokes seven years later, supposedly throwing open the gates to black pros. Nearly two decades later, he is the only one on the PGA Tour. “Tiger seems to be on his way out or close to it,” says Earl Smith, professor emeritus of sociology at Wake Forest University. “There’s been no trail, there’s been no coattails after Tiger.”

Woods earned more than $80 million in winnings and endorsements last year, according to Golf Digest, so it’s not that blacks are excluded from making money on the Tour. But socioeconomic obstacles fill the gaps left by discrimination. About a quarter of all households with annual income exceeding $100,000 have someone playing golf. That falls off dramatically in black households — but not white ones — making between $50,000 and $75,000 a year. “There’s access to instruction, access to clubs, access to golf courses, access to equipment, access to playing in tournaments,” McPhaul says. “There’s still a barrier there.”

Then there are the long odds every pro, no matter his color, must overcome. In most sports, a player is drafted by a team that provides support — coaches, equipment, salary — so he can focus on his game. But pro golfers are their own startups. They pay their expenses, coordinate travel and negotiate endorsements — not to mention carve out time to practice and play. Many never figure it out. Each year, more than 1,000 players vie for 45 slots on the Web.com Tour, golf’s version of minor-league baseball. Purses are much smaller than the PGA Tour’s, though expenses can be as costly. Sleeping in cars is not unheard of. Web.com golfers can play their way onto the PGA Tour, where the 82nd-ranked player earned more than $1 million last year.

Varner, now 23, improved at ECU, becoming the best player in Conference USA. He turned pro after graduating in 2012 and spent two years grinding on a regional tour before making this year’s Web.com Tour — one step from the PGA Tour. To get there, he has relied on a team he drafted. Some members have been with him for years; others he recently hired. “Opportunity is everything,” Varner says. “If you are surrounded by the right people, they’ll provide the right opportunity.” As McPhaul says, “His access to resources growing up may have denied him opportunities, but I don’t worry about doors being closed for him anymore.”


It’s not that he came late to the game. As a kid in Akron, Ohio, Varner used to swing his Fisher-Price clubs in front of a mirror, mimicking his dad. When he was 6, the family moved to Gastonia, where Harold Varner Jr. got a job selling Buicks. He would bring home marketing posters of Woods, who endorsed the brand. “Tiger Woods hooked him,” he says. But others reeled him in. Driving him to a tournament, his parents sometimes were late to work. His father’s retired friends played with him. For $100 he got access to the municipal course any weekday, all summer long. But while Varner was on an easy public course, crafting a homemade swing and playing with his father’s Titleist irons, his future competitors enjoyed the best instruction, equipment and private courses money could buy. A top-ranked amateur near his age was Peter Uihlein of Orlando, Fla. His father is chairman and CEO of Fairhaven, Mass.-based Acushnet Co., which owns Titleist.

About the time McPhaul noticed him at a tournament in Fayetteville, Varner started taking care of carts at Gaston Country Club. The job gave him access to one of the state’s best courses as well as Bruce Sudderth, who had coached a U.S. Women’s Open champ. Sudderth took him on as a pupil. One of the members even let him use a set of Mizuno MP 32 irons, which cost more than $1,000 new. At ECU, Varner played the first tournaments of his freshman year but was benched in the spring. He was struggling academically, and his social life had affected his play. Gradually, he got better at managing his time — not that he ever became a monk. “Some Fridays I was a little hung over, but I had to wake up at 6 a.m. Who cares? They are paying you to go to school.” Under Sudderth’s direction, Varner’s swing had turned compact and consistent. The school outfitted him with top-notch equipment.

He was playing well enough by summer 2010 to make the field at the U.S. Amateur Championship. He became the first black to win the North Carolina Amateur Championship and the first ECU player to earn Conference USA player of the year. He also was the first in his family to earn a college degree (marketing). When he went pro in 2012, McPhaul offered another piece of advice: “I wanted to see him with a really good team around him. I wanted to see people around him who are committed to his development, who treat him rightly, who watch out for him. He’s still awfully young.” Sudderth was more blunt: “You need to get an agent. You’re not really on top of your stuff.” 


“Status” is more than a symbol. Those who have it are members of the PGA or Web.com tours. Those who don’t can get into PGA Tour-sanctioned events through backdoors, but most play “minitours.” His first year as a pro, Varner competed in events organized by Charlotte-based eGolf Professional Tour LLC. On the PGA and Web.com tours, tournament sponsors pay the winnings. Entry fees of $1,000 per player create the purses on the eGolf circuit. If competitors score well, they make money. If they struggle, they lose their investment.

Varner won’t say much about his first agent, whom he hired after turning pro and fired shortly thereafter, except that she made him shoulder too much. But through her he hired Scott Brady, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based financial planner with Wells Fargo Advisors LLC. “For young guys like Harold, we really want to concentrate on budgeting, everything he spends on the road. We wanted to watch those expenses.” So when Varner bought a Honda CR-V, his money manager tapped the breaks on a big down payment. “Financing more kept more liquidity for entrance fees.”

Varner played six eGolf tournaments in 2012, winning $11,500, but he didn’t have many expenses. All 24 events on eGolf’s schedule that year were in the Carolinas or Virginia, many within easy driving distance of Varner’s parents’ house in Gastonia, where he lived. He could usually find a friend with a spare bed close to the others. “I’m all about if I have a bed and it’s free, I’m going to stay there. I’ll stay on the couch.”

That was the last year golfers could qualify for the PGA Tour through “Q School” — a multistage competition held in the fall and winter. Varner missed the final leg by seven shots, but he did catch the attention of Empire Sports Management LLC, a small agency in Charleston, S.C. “Our goal is to sign the guys that are going to have PGA Tour status in one to two years and are going to develop into top 50 players in the world,” says Jeff Stacy, a former agent at New York-based IMG Worldwide Inc., which represents more than 1,000 professional athletes. Varner is one of four or five golfers in his stable at Empire. Varner trusted the agency because it represents his best friend, an ex-University of South Carolina player. “My goal for Harold, and it varies by kid, is he just wants to play golf.” So Stacy enters him into tournaments, books his flights, handles media requests and haggles with potential sponsors.

Varner took a mulligan on the eGolf tour in 2013 and split the fairway. “I made a lot of money. I think I made 40-something thousand.” He actually made $54,418. His biggest check, $9,000, came with a second-place finish in Morganton. Varner even qualified for the U.S. Open Championship, though he didn’t make the cut. His hot streak carried into Q School, where he finished 32nd. But the rules had changed. It no longer offers a direct path to the PGA Tour. The top 45 finishers go on the Web.com Tour. At the end of the year, that tour’s top 75 players will join those ranked 126 to 200 on the PGA Tour in a three-tournament battle royale. The 50 standing at the top of the money list earn PGA Tour cards for the following season. “I don’t think it’s a great idea, but I don’t have any reason to stress,” Varner says. “I’m not going to die if 
I play bad.”

 

Gaining “status” is like going from the Econo Lodge to the Ritz-Carlton. Varner now has access to the PGA Tour’s excellent health benefits and tax-deferred retirement plan. (Brady now has to budget for those, too.) He also can play and practice for free at any of the more than 30 courses in the TPC Network, a subsidiary of the PGA Tour. So on Dec. 30, Varner moved to Jacksonville, Fla., home of TPC Sawgrass. It’s one of the best courses in the U.S. He’s living for free with a friend from Gastonia, though most of his belongings are still in his room at his parents’ house. Lee Janzen — who lives in Orlando, Fla., and has won two U.S. Opens — has taken him under his wing. Also: no state income tax. “That’s why professional athletes are down there,” Varner says. “I plan on making a good amount of money. Why would I stay here when I can save money by being down there?”

He’s only back at Gaston Country Club in early February so his coach can critique his swing. “I don’t know how long it will be. I have to get some things straightened out here.” That’s because he’s flying to Los Angeles to compete in his first official PGA Tour event, the Northern Trust Open. He’ll play on a minority exemption named for Sifford, who won the event in 1969. Varner is quick to rattle off what victory would mean to him: “I’ll be $1.2 million richer. I’ll be a PGA Tour member. … I’ll play at Augusta.” Race isn’t weighing too heavily on his mind right now, but he’s realistic. “I will never be able to get away from that. You’ll never be, like, ‘Oh, Harold’s just a golfer.’ It’s pretty obvious. There’s not many of us out there. … I’ll get that question next week. Whatever. I’m going to play good.”

After more than two hours with Sudderth, he enters the men’s lounge and whips out his smartphone. Stacy has sent him 10 emails. “He says: ‘Confirm you have received your passport/Brazilian visa when you head home tonight.’ Then he sent me an itinerary, which is awesome. I need that.” Stacy also arranged to get tickets to the Northern Trust Open for some friends and two sweaters from his apparel sponsor. “He said they’ll be in my locker on Monday.” This is why Varner doesn’t mind paying him 15% of the money the agent brings in. “I can make 100% more than that if I can use that time on the golf course.”

Sponsors include Cleveland Golf for clubs and balls, Charleston, S.C.-based Southern Tide LLC for clothes and Status4, a scorecard-sharing smartphone app. Southern Tide’s apparel is “preppy,” very popular with young white men. The company did not respond to inquiries from Business North Carolina, but Marlene Morris Towns, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says endorsing a black golfer could diversify its customer base. “A brand like that really has a lot more to gain in terms of exposure and broadening its audience.”

“Does race matter corporately? We’ll see,” Stacy says. “I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think that Harold is as talented as any of the kids who’ve turned professional since he turned professional, and that includes some kids who have won a lot of big amateur events and played well in PGA Tour events.” Stacy won’t specify terms of Varner’s endorsement deals, but sponsors pay a retainer plus bonuses based on performance and status, meaning Varner got a bump when he made the Web.com Tour. He also gets $2,000 to $4,000 for making it into a PGA Tour event. That means Los Angeles is already paid for, considering the entry fee is small ($100), the event provides a courtesy car (Mercedes-Benz) and he has a free place to stay (a friend of a friend). His major expense will be a caddy (about $1,000).

Varner makes a strong charge out of the gate, averaging a tournament-best 320.6-yard driving distance off the tee on his way to second place through 12 holes, but two late bogeys drag him down the leaderboard, finishing the round at a 2-under-par 69. A 1-over-par 72 for the second round begins a slow slide. The weekend is especially tough. He cards another 72 on Saturday and an ugly 75 the final round, finishing 70th. “I just didn’t play well.” Nevertheless, he earns his highest wage ever for four days’ work — $13,199. Maybe more important, he served notice, and in March received another sponsor’s exemption into a PGA Tour event, this one to Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, April 28-May 4. “The industry knows who Harold Varner is,” Stacy says. “Northern Trust validated that he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.” That will only pay off, however, if he can reach the landing at the top of the stairs.