Harold Varner III is a damn good pro golfer who earned his PGA Tour card after his internship on the Web.com Tour. Same as many other guys on the PGA Tour. Harold got his start in golf almost before he could walk. Same as many guys on Tour. Harold had a dad who encouraged him early and gave him every opportunity to develop his talent. Same as a lot of other guys on Tour. Harold is a young rookie currently on Tour who is consistently appearing on leaderboards in just about every tournament he’s in. Same as quite a few other guys under 30 currently knocking down pins. But there’s one thing about Harold that separates him from all the other guys on Tour. He’s black–an American of African descent, who represents one of the only such golfers to emerge from the
Tiger Woods era of the sport. And that’s a rather shocking indictment of the game and its lack of diversity. In fact ESPN’s online magazine tags golf as the least diverse of any major sport in America. We’ve come a ways since the late 50s when Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown, and Lee Elder were barred from entering tournaments, let alone clubhouses. But with only one full time African American on the PGA Tour after 20 years of Tiger Woods, the game is mostly white, looking nothing like the population at large. Why?
Varner was asked this question, and his answer was reflective of the “content of his character”, as Martin Luther King Jr. would have said. “Because the rates were so low, I had almost unlimited access to our nearby municipal course,” he told a reporter. Harold’s father was a modest car salesman who could not afford the privileges of wealth, but Harold was able to take advantage of the reasonable rates municipal courses around Charlotte, North Carolina were charging when he was growing up. Harold went on to say those rates have skyrocketed, and income among African Americans has not kept pace. So black kids have not had the opportunity to develop an interest in golf. And by the time they reach college, if they even reach that level of education, they do not have the skills to make their college golf teams. So they migrate to other sports where they’ve had more access to develop skills at a younger age, like basketball, football, and baseball. While the Woods Effect has dramatically raised the purses of tournaments, making millionaires of so-so pros, created media jobs galore, and raised greens fees of munis along with signature courses, it has priced golf out of reach for minority players. The First Tee? In many areas around the country, there are more white kids involved than minority.
And this was during a time when the first black man was elected as President not once but twice–and an avid golfer at that. Curious. Again, Varner, now 24, may hold a clue as to the reason for this conundrum. According to ESPN staff writer Farrell Evans, Harold was raised by a father who taught his young son not to judge others by their skin color. He took Dr. King’s advice to heart and raised an open-hearted, friendly child who took whatever support
and education he could muster, no matter what color skin the sources came from. He was a boy who became a man who smiled easily, creating an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie from the get-go. All of us, whatever color, need to draw a lesson from the Varner family and drop the prejudices and animosities of the past. That’s a much greater challenge than the economic one of lowering greens fees for disadvantaged youth, but a multi-pronged approach is needed to increase diversity in this sport.
Later, Harold also benefited from access to his high school team, giving him a first taste of competition–not as intense as his white contemporaries, like Jordan Speith experienced as a youngster, but valuable. I can relate to this as well, since it gave me the opportunity to compete against some pretty damn good golfers of my age in the early 1960s. We won the Philadelphia City Championship in ’63, which remains a proud memory in my storehouse of golf memories. So make sure you lobby to keep those high school golf programs, and keep them accessible to underprivileged boys and girls.
Building diversity into a sport is no easy matter. We all assumed Woods’ success would usher in a flood of African American golfers but it didn’t. Why? At the risk of sounding too simplistic, I think the answer lies in attitude. Woods stopped smiling. He became too aloof, too isolated from his fans, a bit too arrogant. Woods did not exactly embrace his blackness, so black kids couldn’t relate to him, he was beyond their emotional and cultural reach, he talked in cliches and clipped tones, and the more successful he became, the more distant he became.
And that’s where Harold Varner III may do more to enhance diversity in golf than Tiger Woods ever did. He casts a smile that wants to be returned. He answers questions like a poker player who signals his move before he plays his cards. He does not play his cards close to his chest. In Yiddish parlance, Harold is a mensch, a true human being. I suspect there will be no scandals with Harold Varner. He loves the game too much.
So what is the prognosis for diversity in golf? I think it’s good. Harold has impressed his peers on tour, and is being increasingly mentored by them. The foundation for the structure is there. Sifford, Elder, Calvin Peete, Jim
Thorpe, Woods. If Varner continues his good play through 2016, he could win rookie of the year, and that would be a tremendous boost for increasing minority players. “I want to inspire people to play this game,” he said recently. Harold, in fact, looks a bit like Charlie Sifford (who I watched play in the early 60s at my home course, Cobbs Creek, in Philadelphia)–his stature, his impressive driving distance, his tenacity, his high golf IQ, minus the perpetual stogie. He has the skills. He has the personality. He has confidence. He has faith. Yes, he needs more experience, which is building. He needs, of course, to win, which I think he will do over the next couple years. Harold is the real deal–a guy the game needs as the Tiger era winds down. I’m not exactly saying we’re heading into the Varner era, but watch this guy: In his own way, he could very well change the face of golf.