WESTLAKE: Harold Varner III is confident he’ll one day meet LeBron James.
Since he’s not likely to stalk the fellow Akron native, that means Varner has faith he will continue his steady progression and make a name for himself on the PGA Tour.
“He’s the best basketball player right now and I want to be around the greatest,” Varner said Thursday. “It will come around, I’m sure it will.”
Varner, 23, played last weekend in the Web.com Tour’s Cleveland Open at Lakewood Country Club, where he tied for 18th.
After spending last year on the eGolf and Hooters mini-tours, Varner scored well enough in the Web.com qualifying school finals to get into the first eight events. He made enough money in those eight to solidify his status for the rest of the year.
He leads the Web.com Tour in driving distance at 314.3 yards and stands 16th on this week’s money list with $101,558. The top 25 in earnings at the end of the year earn their PGA Tour cards for 2015.
Since he was a sophomore at East Carolina University, Varner has had his sights set on a pro golf career. He left Akron and moved to Gastonia, N.C., when he was 6, but he was interested enough in the sport at 4 that his father cut down a 5-iron to replace the Fisher-Price clubs he’d had since he was 2. He spent many days hacking around the backyard of their home on Penelope Drive.
“The goal is to come back and play Firestone. We’re going to get there eventually,” he said of the $9 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational.
Now living in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., Varner still has family in Kent and Copley, including aunt Janet Varner, who worked as a weekend cook at Firestone Country Club for 15 years. He visits Northeast Ohio at least once a year and played in the Good Park Junior from ages 9-12.
“I started playing tournaments in North Carolina when I was 9 or 10 and just got hooked,” said Varner, 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds. “I never got tall enough to play basketball. That’s my favorite sport.”
Varner seems to be doing just fine at his second favorite. On May 25, he finished tied for second in the Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, N.C., where several of his college friends cheered him on as he earned $55,000.
“I feel like I’m playing great. I’ve just got to be real patient,” Varner said. “You want it now. I think I need to slow down, take it in and try to execute as many shots as possible.”
He nearly became the first African-American player to win a Web.com event. But that’s not a milestone that motivates Varner.
“I don’t really see color. If that encourages other African-Americans to play, so be it,” he said. “But I don’t really carry around a torch. I want to be the best golfer, I don’t really want to be the best black golfer.
“I want to be great. I don’t want the title as the best black golfer, that’s just sickening.”
Some might argue it would be quite an accomplishment, since he would surpass Tiger Woods. But Varner was thinking more about trailblazers like Charlie Sifford who made his opportunity possible, and the influence of his parents Harold Jr., an automobile salesman, and Patricia, who works on a day-of-surgery medical team.
“It’s America. If you want to do something, you can figure out a way,” he said. “You can start from scratch and make something out of nothing. I guess back in the day opportunity wasn’t the same. It’s sad, it’s unfortunate, but I wasn’t raised like that. I was fortunate enough to have parents who dropped me off at the golf course every morning. They didn’t have any color barriers.”
On this trip, Varner didn’t let anything interfere with watching the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. James is still king with Varner, who holds no ill will about him leaving the Cavaliers.
“You go wherever the win is,” Varner said. “He raised a lot of money [for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America]; there’s kids who are benefiting. At the end of the day if you’re doing something to help someone else, you’re doing the right thing.”
When — not if — they get a chance to meet, Varner vowed he would learn something from James.
“I’ll ask something and it will trigger something that will help me down the road,” Varner said. “Maybe not in golf, but in life.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.