PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Nearly 50 players had rolled through the 17th hole by the time Players Championship leader Harold Varner III arrived, and not a single one had found the water.
It’s hard to imagine the hole playing much easier – 147 yards, back pin, hardly a breath of wind – and most days, Varner’s tee ball probably would have held up on the island green. But he was stuck between clubs, chose a pitching wedge over a 9-iron, and when his ball landed on the upslope short of the flag on the rain-softened green, it had too much backspin and ripped off the front, into the water.
“That’s what you get a lot out here,” he said afterward. “Either you get it done, or you don’t.”
Varner’s wedge shot from the drop zone wasn’t much better – it nearly zipped back into the water, too – and he walked off the green with a triple-bogey 6.
From two shots ahead to one behind at TPC Sawgrass.
More disappointing to Varner was how he responded – by flaring his tee shot onto 18 into the right trees, necessitating a pitch-out and leading to another bogey.
Varner had played flawlessly for 16 holes, carding seven birdies, but played the last two holes at 4 over. He signed for a 69, putting him three shots off Tommy Fleetwood’s (very) early lead.
“It doesn’t kill me when I play bad or good,” Varner said. “I just love the opportunity to play as well as I can. Standing there on [the 17th] tee, I’m like, Give it to me. I want it every time.”
Full-field scores from The Players Championship
What Varner apparently didn’t want on Thursday were any questions about his allegiances. After he won for the first time in five years at the Asian Tour’s Saudi International, Varner said he was flooded with messages on social media about how it was inevitable he’d then make the jump to the Saudi-backed Super Golf League.
“If I wouldn’t have won, no one would have talked about it,” he said.
Instead, Varner said it was “pretty odd how my name just went straight to the top of the list” and had a conversation with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan to clear the air.
“You do your job, that’s what you do,” he said. “I thought that was pretty odd. I’ve always supported the PGA Tour when they needed me, and I want to be there.”
When asked a few follow-ups about the supposed blowback he’d received, he said, “No, I could just tell how it happened. I didn’t get any blowback. I just know. I’m not stupid.”
In any case, the Saudi title was important for Varner, since it vaulted him into the top 50 in the world ranking for the first time. The top 50 in three weeks’ time will earn an automatic invitation to the Masters – a tournament that Varner, 31, has yet to play. He’s currently ranked 48th after back-to-back missed cuts, and he’s planning to play the next two weeks in one final push.
“It’s important – I want to get to Augusta,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be there. You’re always looking at the score of a basketball game. I think it’s messed up how the world rankings work now that I’m paying more attention to it, like you can not play and move up, so it’s pretty odd. I’m glad I don’t have to crunch the numbers, but it is what it is, and I think I’ll have a great opportunity to get to Augusta.”