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It’s not fair to ask Harold Varner III to provide all the answers on systemic racism in this country.
But other than Tiger Woods, he’s the only black PGA Tour player ranked top 200 in the world. And these are times when black voices are being amplified.
Woods isn’t playing at this week’s Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas — the tour’s first competition since the pandemic shut it down three months ago — so Varner was thrust into the spotlight on Thursday.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers two weeks ago and the subsequent protests around the nation, racial injustice remains at the forefront of everyone’s mind.
Just minutes after Varner completed one of the best rounds of his career, shooting a 7-under 63 to make him the co-leader of the tournament after the first round, the conversation veered toward racial politics.
He was asked if he feels like he’s playing for more than himself.
“I for sure think that,” he told The Golf Channel after the round. “But the platform I have is through golf so I know playing well is part of that, so you’ve got to focus on the most important thing, and that’s playing well. That’s what I tried to do, focus on that.”
Play well, he did. He was just one shot short of matching his career-best mark of 62 thanks to seven birdies and zero bogeys on the day. He remarkably hit all 18 greens in regulation.
It was an impressive showing for the 29-year-old from North Carolina who is ranked 124th in the world and has yet to collect a PGA victory in five years on tour.
In reality he’s spent most of his career as a grinder, trying to make cuts and maintain his full-time tour status. He’s not exactly a household name for the casual golfing fan, which perhaps makes this week even more significant.
After all, this is still undeniably a sports played predominately by white men. When Woods rose to superstar status in the late 1990s, it was supposed to usher in a new era of racial diversity. Yet 20-plus years later Woods remains one of the only big name players of color.
So maybe it does carry more weight when a player like Varner speaks out against racism, especially when that message is being delivered to a golfing audience that skews older and whiter. According to a Yahoo poll, that’s the demographic that most needs convincing about the existence of racial inequality.
Varner was one of the first pro golfers to speak publicly after Floyd’s death, saying “I pray for humanity even more because regardless of color, WE need each other to make that change,” followed by a lengthy, thoughtful message about race, protesting and his personal story.
In the past, he’s been outspoken about the lack of African American representation in golf. He says it’s tougher for black kids to get into the sport because of lack of access and financial means.
Last year, he launched the HV3 Foundation in North Carolina with the goal “to give back to less fortunate kids that could greatly benefit from increased access and opportunity in sport,” according to its website.
It may be a small step toward correcting a major inequality issue, but Varner alone shouldn’t have to carry the burden of fixing race inequality in golf. And winning a tournament certainly isn’t going to solve racism. Neither will the PGA’s moment of silence for Floyd.
All Varner can do this weekend is what he’s done his whole life: play some good golf.
“I love playing golf,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to do this for a living, so when I got on the golf course I wasn’t thinking about anything.”
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