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Varner impresses with 69 in first round at Riviera

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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.