Harold Varner III shot 81 in the final Sunday pairing at the PGA Championship with eventual winner Brooks Koepka and learned a valuable lesson in the process.
He’s good enough to win.
Not last Sunday, when the wind whipped and the magnitude of the moment took some getting used to, but down the road when Varner finds himself in a similar situation he believes he will be better for the struggle he endured.
It would be enough to break some players, making what felt like double bogey after double bogey in front of the New York gallery all while Koepka was trying to finish off his fourth major championship victory.
“The biggest thing (I learned) is I can compete with the best when they’re playing their best on the best golf courses. You can’t go any higher than that, besides winning,” Varner said.
“There’s only four (majors) a year and I was right there.”
Varner is still chasing his first PGA Tour victory but there he was, walking off the first green at Bethpage Black having sliced two strokes off Koepka’s lead with a birdie-bogey flip at No. 1. Koepka noticed, admitting he thought about how quickly his seven-stroke lead was down to five.
“I was like, man, I can win this thing. I knew I had to play unbelievable golf but I thought I had a really good chance to win. I wasn’t thinking about that the first three days,” Varner said.
Three holes later, Varner had plummeted down the leaderboard and he ultimately finished T36. It was, as a football coach once said about his quarterback who made five turnovers in a playoff game, a bad day to have a bad day.
Tee shots that on a softer day would have been playable bounced into the weeds. The greens were fast and he felt his fundamentals erode in the wind. One mistake led to another.
“It was the perfect storm for what happened,” Varner said.
Getting to the final group on Sunday was an achievement in itself. Varner’s game had been in a flat spot but he had told people around him that the results were coming.
He arrived at Bethpage early, playing practice rounds there the weekend before the PGA began. That’s not typically his way but it helped him feel ready. He has already changed how he will approach practice rounds at the Memorial Tournament next week, having seen the benefits of a more focused approach.
“It’s funny everyone asks about Brooks. People ask what I can take from that. That guy is focused on winning. It’s not that easy.” – Harold Varner III
Waiting for his 2:35 p.m. tee time Sunday, Varner felt the nerves kick in. He wished he’d stayed up later on Saturday night so he might have slept in later on Sunday.
“It was such a unique experience. I was so nervous and once I started playing, I wasn’t nervous. It was like the highest nervousness I’ve ever been. It was like a high. It was awesome,” Varner said.
“It’s pretty nice that I can tell what I felt at that moment. I wondered if I would black out to where I just didn’t know what was going on but I can remember what I was thinking which is really good.”
Varner said it felt as if there was a weight on every shot. No one else, not even his caddie, knows how he felt in the final round. Playing alongside Koepka as he won his fourth major in eight starts, Varner recalled a piece of advice he got from a friend.
“My best friend played professional baseball and he always told me winners focus on winning and losers focus on winners,” Varner said.
“It’s funny everyone asks about Brooks. People ask what I can take from that. That guy is focused on winning. It’s not that easy.”
It led Varner to ask his own question.
“What does it take for Harold to win?” he said.
Keep doing what he’s doing, Varner believes. Take the stinging lesson from Bethpage and build from it.
There’s a pattern, Varner said, to his career and what happened Sunday at Bethpage fits that pattern.
“My rookie year I’d have some Sundays where I would shoot 79. It’s just how I grow. It’s my journey. I’ve been here before, just at a smaller level. I just have to do it the way I did it the last time, keep plugging along, keep doing my job,” Varner said.
Harold Varner III says he learned at Bethpage Black that he “can compete with the best.” Photo: Jamie Squire, Getty Images
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