Varner impresses with 69 in first round at Riviera

By Randall MellFebruary 14, 2014, 2:43 am

LOS ANGELES – Harold Varner III didn’t accept the special sponsor exemption to the Northern Trust Open this week just to gain experience.

He didn’t accept it hoping to make a good impression.

No, he unabashedly told the gathered media in his news conference at week’s start that he came to win.

“That’s got to be the goal,” Varner said. “It sounds cliché, because that’s what everyone says, but I think I’m capable. I know I’m capable.”

Considering he’s playing in just his second PGA Tour event, and his first didn’t go very well last summer, when he missed the cut shooting 76 and 79 at the U.S. Open at Merion, that’s a big dream.

Of course, when you’re a black man trying to make the PGA Tour, your dream has to be extra large. He is, after all, the only black man in the field this week.

Varner looked every bit like he belonged among the game’s best players here Thursday, posting a 2-under-par 69 to move among the top 20 in the first round. He nearly got himself to the top of the leaderboard on his second nine, knocking a wedge to 13 feet at his 12th hole and making the birdie putt to get to 4 under, a shot off the lead.

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“Harold’s fearless,” said Korky Kemp, a friend of Varner’s who walked the course with him. “He’s got a totally different attitude than most guys coming out of college. His background’s different, and he brings a different mindset. He’s not worrying if he doesn’t play well he’ll be looking for a mini-tour to play. That never goes through his mind. He’s confident he can compete.”

Varner, 23, earned Tour status last year at Q-School. He’s an East Carolina graduate who accepted the special exemption Northern Trust created as an opportunity for a top golfer who represents the advancement of diversity in the game.

Arriving here early in the week, Varner thanked Charlie Sifford for helping pave the way for black men in golf. This special exemption used to be named after Sifford. Varner said he's appreciative of the effort of black pioneers in the game, but he said he arrives colorblind, nonetheless.

“I don’t think about that,” Varner said. “My dad’s always told me not to seek color, to treat everyone the same.”

Varner was on the verge of being Thursday's big story when he got within one shot of the lead. He fell off the pace late. He couldn’t get up and down and made bogey at his 14th hole and missed a 3-footer for par at his 17th.

“I wanted to shoot the best I possibly could, and I was close,” Varner said.

That’s classic Varner. His swing coach back at Gaston Country Club in Varner’s hometown of Gastonia, N.C., says Varner’s strength is internal.

“His strength is his attitude,” says Bruce Sudderth, his swing coach. “If he doesn’t play good golf, he just says, `I have to get better’ and he goes to work. That’s the way he thinks. He never gets down. He just wants to get better, just wants to improve.”

And to help him improve, Varner received a nice gift from someone who knows a thing or two about playing Riviera.

Two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, who has become a mentor to Varner, gave Varner his yardage book from Riviera.

“Lee takes good care of me, but it doesn’t stop him from whipping me,” Varner said.

Varner met Janzen three years ago on a retreat with College Golf Fellowship, an extension of the PGA Tour’s Christian fellowship group. Janzen was Varner’s small group leader at the retreat. They made a connection. Now that Varner lives in Jacksonville, Fla., he makes drives down to Orlando to play rounds with Janzen.

Sudderth says Varner is a late bloomer as a competitor. Varner was an excellent high school player in Gastonia, but he wasn’t exposed to the American Junior Golf Association circuit or any of the big junior events. He wasn’t exposed to national quality tournament golf until attending East Carolina.

Varner’s father taught him to play. He grew up playing a muni and then working at Gaston Country Club, where he met Sudderth.

Even without the advantages of many elite juniors, Varner honed an intense desire.

“I want to be great,” he said after Thursday’s round.

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos

The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

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LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.