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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Fleetwood fires 63, waits to see if score is enough

By Rex HoggardJune 17, 2018, 8:52 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Tommy Fleetwood became the sixth player to shoot 63 at the U.S. Open, and just the second to do it in the final round. Now he waits.

Fleetwood teed off almost 2 ½ hours before – and six strokes behind – the leaders at Shinnecock Hills on Sunday, but stormed into the hunt thanks to four consecutive birdies starting at the 12th hole. The Englishman’s round was even more impressive considering he didn’t birdie either of the layout’s par 5s.

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Fleetwood finished at 2 over par – after missing a 9-foot putt for birdie and 62 at the 18th – which was tied for second place and one stroke off the lead held by Brooks Koepka when he completed his round.

After speaking with the media, Fleetwood went to the locker room to await a possible playoff, which was changed this year from an 18-hole overtime to just two holes of aggregate play.

“We'll go and relax a little bit and just see,” said Fleetwood, who rolled in 159 feet of birdies putts. “Only time will tell what's going to happen today at the course. If it was like yesterday, I'd feel a little more comfortable than now.”

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Fowler follows 84 with 65, praises Shinnecock setup

By Rex HoggardJune 17, 2018, 5:44 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – As promised, the USGA dialed back Shinnecock Hills for Sunday’s final round, watering the greens overnight and deferring to more user-friendly hole locations.

The evidence of this was on the leaderboard, with four early finishers having shot under-par rounds, including Rickie Fowler, who closed with a round-of-the-week 65. There were just three under-par cards on Saturday.

“That's the golf course I enjoy playing. Obviously, pin placements were a lot safer,” said Fowler, who had just one bogey on Sunday and opened his day with a 4-under 31 on his opening nine. “The pins today will definitely allow for the greens to firm up and get fast, and we'll see how much they dry out. It was definitely more receptive this morning than yesterday, that's for sure.”

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It was a 19-stroke turnaround for Fowler, who ballooned to a third-round 84 on Day 3 during what most contend were the week’s toughest conditions. Fowler had put himself into contention going into the weekend thanks to a second-round 69, but struggled on Saturday afternoon like much of the field.

Fowler said the setup was vastly different to what players faced on Saturday and that even if the winds increase for the afternoon tee times the course will remain playable, unlike Round 3 when many players said the USGA “lost” the golf course.

“They did a good job of staying safe,” Fowler said, “because if it does dry out, it will still be very playable.”

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Phil celebrates par on 13, ducks media after round

By Ryan LavnerJune 17, 2018, 5:35 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Phil Mickelson didn’t have another meltdown at the U.S. Open.

Back on the 13th green Sunday – less than 24 hours after taking a two-shot penalty for hitting a moving ball and recording a sextuple-bogey 10 – Mickelson poured in a 10-footer and raised his arms in mock triumph, as if he’d finally won that elusive major title.

Not quite.

He’d simply made par.

“It looked like he won the Masters,” said playing partner Rickie Fowler. “He didn’t jump, but he had a little celebration there.”

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The par save and the final-round 69 were one of the lone bright spots during what was an adventurous week for Lefty, even by his unpredictable standards. Mickelson’s shocking swat was still the talk of this Open, especially after USGA executive director Mike Davis revealed Saturday night that Mickelson had called him to ask for more clarification on the rule he said that he knew he’d broken.

Despite some calls for him to withdraw from the tournament, Mickelson displayed his usual cheerful demeanor inside the ropes with Fowler.

“He joked about it right as we went down the first hole,” Fowler said.

Fowler said that he didn’t know “if I would have had the wits like Phil to run after it” on 13, but added that it never should have come to that in the first place.

“He could have saved himself a shot by just letting it go and taking unplayable, but then that would still look pretty funny too,” he said. “The course shouldn’t play that way.”

If you’re wondering whether Mickelson would be defiant or contrite on Sunday, we don’t know the answer. He declined to stop and speak with the media, deciding instead to sign autographs for more than a half hour and then offering a few short answers before ducking into player hospitality.

“The real question is, ‘What am I going to do next?’” he said. “I don’t know.”

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USGA slows greens, alters hole locations for Sunday

By Ryan LavnerJune 17, 2018, 3:29 pm

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – After admitting that it went too far with the setup Saturday at the U.S. Open, USGA officials made some modifications for the final round.

In a statement released Sunday morning, the USGA said that it watered Shinnecock Hills’ greens an “appropriate level” and slowed down the surfaces nearly a foot on the Stimpmeter.

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That was in anticipation of a sunny, dry forecast that calls for temperatures to reach 80 degrees and wind gusts up to 20 mph.

They said the setup for the final day is similar to what was used in Round 1, when officials braced for 30-mph winds.

Some of the hole locations were also adjusted based on the forecast – changes, the USGA said, that were meant to “maintain a challenge yet fair U.S. Open test.”