FORT WORTH, Texas – PGA Tour golf during the age of COVID-19 is littered with adjustments, from the circuit’s social-distancing guidelines to the eerie absence of crowds this week at Colonial. Simply put: the first week back is almost as much about breaking bad habits as it is breaking par.
Harold Varner III had no problem with the latter Thursday at the Charles Schwab Challenge, but the former is proving to be a true test for the 29-year-old pro.
Asked what he’s struggled with the most in the Tour’s return to competition, the affable Varner didn’t hesitate: “I’m a big hugger. I love to hug people,” he said with a big smile. “I care about people. It's weird. Like you don't realize how much a handshake matters, looking a man in the eye or a woman, whatever, you don't do that [now]. I've been struggling, honestly.”
At the pace Varner is going, the urge to hug, high-five, fist bump and every other now-verboten form of celebration may be all that stands between Varner and a long-awaited maiden Tour victory.
Varner didn’t start his round like he’d been quarantined for 91 days, making back-to-back birdies and adding two more before the turn to move into contention. By the time he rolled in an 11-footer for birdie at No. 18 to shoot 63 and tie Justin Rose for the lead at 7 under, the lack of interaction – not to mention the lack of fans – was wearing on him.
“That was awesome. It made it feel a little bit normal,” said Varner of the limited applause he received from the handful of volunteers around the 18th green.
Varner wouldn’t allow himself to think about what a victory would mean to him. He’s better than that. “If I'm thinking about winning a golf tournament right now, I've probably lost it,” he figured. But he also understands what a victory would mean in the broader context of current national issues such as racial injustice and police brutality.
On June 1, Varner became the reluctant voice for social justice on the Tour when he penned a 632-word letter to social media outlining his thoughts on the death of George Floyd and race relations in general.
“To whoever wants to listen, I have so much I want to say,” Varner began in his patiently understated way.
“Here’s the obvious: George Floyd should still be alive,” he wrote. He went on to say Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was “evil incarnate” and “senseless.” He had so much to say and said it so well. He doesn’t want to be the face of social change in golf, but like it is for so many others during this time, saying nothing is no longer an option.
Whatever your opinion on how – or if – golf can help drive social change, there is no debating that Varner’s words have inspired action. The Tour followed his lead, filming an honest Q&A between Varner and commissioner Jay Monahan and earmarking the 8:46 a.m. tee time this week to “amplify the voices and efforts underway to end systemic issues of racial and social injustices impacting our country.”
Varner wasn’t at the course at 8:46 a.m., but he still savored the moment.
“When I got to the gym it was on TV, and I just couldn't hear but I could see. I don’t really know what they were thinking on the golf course, but it was just crazy what they did. I thought it was pretty cool,” Varner said.
Varner, like Monahan, was hopeful that this conversation leads to change. That this conversation isn’t forgotten. He’s also realistic. His words over the last two weeks have been earnest and educational, but he knows why his voice has carried so far.
“The reason I have a platform is because I'm really good at golf,” he said. “I just need to focus on that, and to be honest with you, being on the golf course, it helped me. It's my getaway, I guess.”
He admitted to being nervous when he teed off. After three months of pandemic inactivity, none of the players in this week’s field were filled with confidence that they’d show up with their A-games.
It didn’t help that Varner “hooked one super far left” off the first tee. He recovered for a birdie and went on to become just the third player in the last 25 years to hit all 18 greens in regulation at Colonial, joining Tiger Woods in 1997 and Kris Blanks in 2010.
He also carded his best round this season and, however unintended, allowed his message of unity and understanding to linger in the headlines for a little while longer.
It was a round that was marred by only one thing: he couldn’t celebrate by hugging anyone.