Crisis Creates a Champion

East Carolina’s best men’s golfer in several years had
trouble adjusting to college, with poor grades keeping him
out of tournaments. But Harold Varner refocused
his life, then charged up the leaderboard

By Bethany Bradsher
  *  Photos by Jay Clark

Harold VarnerThere have been two turning points in Harold Varner’s career as an East Carolina golfer. The first came at the end of his freshman year when he struggled on the course and in the classroom. Because of his poor grades, he didn’t qualify for several tournaments. That exclusion became a life-changing moment that propelled him two years later to a second turning point. As a better student and player, Varner charged up the leaderboard in historic fashion to win the North Carolina Amateur Championship.

“The best thing that ever happened to me as a freshman was not playing,” he says. “I wasn’t playing good. My grades weren’t good. That was a pretty low point. It was one of the best things that ever happened, because I started appreciating playing so much more.”

He headed home to Gastonia with a reinforced resolve to make the summer count, and he spent most of his waking hours on the golf course during that vacation. When he returned for his sophomore season, he earned the lowest scoring average on the team and was named second team All-Conference USA.

“Before that, he had been able to get through life by smiling and being charming,” says his head coach, Press McPhaul. “School and golf weren’t working, and he realized, ‘I can’t fake my way through.’ That clicked sometime that spring, and before long he started to see results.”

Varner continued to make steady progress through that year and the early part of his junior season, until late October of last year brought the next major milestone. At the Outer Banks Intercollegiate, the last tournament of ECU’s fall season, he posted the best 54-hole score in Pirate history (a 20-under 196) to become the individual champion. It was a key boost to his faith in his own potential.

That tournament marked a major realization for Varner—that he was talented enough to prevail in a large collegiate field. Before winning the Outer Banks Intercollegiate, he wasn’t convinced he was good enough to take a title without some extraordinary luck. But from that day on, he knew that hard work would take him far.

“I think several things happened,” McPhaul says. “One is, he saw that his best was good enough, that he didn’t have to step outside of himself to win, much like a quarterback doesn’t have to force a throw or a basketball player waits for his shot. He started to realize that patience was a good thing. He’s making a decision to actively commit to a process that he knows will work, and he started to do that over and over again.

“He’s incredibly gifted physically. He never knows when his firepower is going to take over and he’s going to make four birdies in five holes. So I think he learned that he just needs to keep doing good stuff and wait.”

One of the Harold moments that is seared in McPhaul’s memory happened that night as the team boarded the van to return the Greenville. They had not even pulled out of the parking lot when Varner asked, “How many days until our next tournament?” McPhaul quickly did the math and gave him the answer: 90 days. Varner responded, “Well, that’s 90 days to get better.”

‘Every shot’s another opportunity’

Varner’s second overall collegiate title—at the Collegiate Classic in November—came during the last tournament of his fall senior season. With the spring schedule featuring two big Florida invitationals and the Conference USA Championships in April, Varner’s confidence is at a peak, and he hopes to add onto his string of victories as his ECU career concludes.

“Once I won, I figured out, ‘I can win; I don’t have to do anything special to win,’” he said. “I love winning. There’s nothing better than winning. You’ve got to hope for the best at all times. Every shot’s another opportunity. That’s how I approach life. Every day’s another opportunity.”

He spent last summer taking advantage of two big opportunities. He competed in both of the state’s major amateur tournaments—the N.C. Amateur in June and the N.C. Match Play Tournament in August—and won them both.

He entered the final day of the N.C. Amateur, played at Greensboro Country Club, tied for 11th and four strokes back. What followed was a classic case of everything clicking at the right time, as he carded seven birdies and an eagle for a 66, the lowest score of the day. He knew it was a great round, but with the leaders still on the course he didn’t know that victory was within reach. “He just kept doing what he does, and that is, pick good shots, execute them, and try everything he could to get putts to the hole,” McPhaul says. “He was just hanging around the clubhouse, and somebody said, ‘You might win this thing.’”

Two months after that feat, Varner made North Carolina amateur history by completing what is known as an “N.C. Am Slam” with a victory over Colin Chapman in the final round of the Match Play Championship in Bermuda Run. He became the first golfer in the state to win both events, and he accented that accomplishment by taking both titles in the same year.

As long as he was collecting milestones, Varner also learned that he was the first African-American male golfer to win the amateur championship in the 102-year history of the event. (Earlier in the year, Angela Stewart, an African-American woman from Greenville, won the N.C. Senior Women’s championship.) And while Varner loves stories of courageous stands taken against injustice—one of his favorite movies is Glory Road—he says he didn’t start playing golf in a quest to be a revolutionary.

“I don’t think about it much, but I get it,” he says. “If it opens up doors for other African-Americans who aren’t playing golf, that’s awesome.”

If young players of any background are looking for a role model, McPhaul considers Varner an excellent candidate. He routinely thinks of others before himself, and as part of a strong senior class of five golfers he has been working toward becoming a vocal leader for the Pirate underclassmen. And with the spring schedule pointing to the C-USA Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, McPhaul knows that the time is ripe for Varner to emerge as aplayer with national potential.


Elsewhere in spring sports

Aisha Goggins and Tynita ButtsTrack and field: Two of the most accomplished Lady Pirates in recent years are poised to top their considerable accomplishments from the 2011 outdoor season. Junior high jumper Tynita Butts (right), who finished sixth at the U.S. Outdoor Championships, and 400m runner Aisha Goggins (left), the 13th place national finisher in her event, will both compete with strength for ECU in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. Butts, who finished seventh at the NCAA Outdoor Championships as a freshman, jumped higher than world record holder Chaunte Lowe at the USA Championships.

Softball: When the 2011 team went to the NCAA Regional at the University of Maryland last spring, they set a national record for freshman starters in a regional, with eight. And the ECU squad will look to that youthful group—and the maturity they gained through a 41-22 campaign, for leadership in 2012. Led by top hitters Alex Fieldhouse and Jordan Lewis, the sophomore class will look to pace the Pirates in head coach Tracey Kee’s 16th season.

Men’s tennis: The youth movement is also in play on the men’s tennis team, which was led during the fall schedule by the play of freshmen Nicholas Soriano, Chase Baker and Patriek Wolterbeek. Soriano and his doubles partner, sophomore Joran Vliegen, won their flight in doubles at the ECU Fall Shootout in September, and Baker and Wolterbeek won their respective flights to close out the fall season at The Citadel Invitational. The spring tennis schedule features matches at N.C. State and Conference USA foe Memphis.