Sports post number 2 – this one’s about golf and my favorite athlete (who happens to be a golfer)

So this is sports post number 2. The last one was about curling, and this one is going to be mostly about golf. If there is anybody reading this blog who doesn’t know me, I am American born and raised, despite my somewhat unorthodox taste in sports. As a kid, I followed all the major US sports, but over the last 30 years I have gradually distanced myself from all of them except the NFL and college hoops, although if I didn’t have strong rooting interests (Baltimore Ravens and U. of Maryland, respectively), I’m not sure that I would be following these either. The fact that my 2 daughters have also been following the Ravens (which they started certainly doing to spend more time with me, but now they are legitimate fans and know almost as much as I do) helped maintain my interest in the NFL. I also just like football. I’ll talk more about other sports in the future.

There are 3 main reasons why I like professional golf as much as I do; 1) I have played it some, and I just started playing again. Based on my own struggles and what I have read, I can appreciate how incredibly skilled the players are. Most of them are within normal physical appearance norms (height and weight, at least), and they make it look so easy that you would think anyone could do it. Way not so. 2) Each week, the winner has to beat everyone else plating in the tournament, and that’s typically 140 – 160 players. Not many other sports can claim that. Hell, only about half of the players teeing it up each week get a paycheck. After round 2 of each tournament each tournament(which usually run Thursday – Sunday), only the top 60 or 70 (plus ties) players get to play the weekend. The unfortunate others have missed “the cut” and go home. No, I’m not blind; I’m sure most of the top 200 – 300 golfers have some kind of contract(s) (equipment or logo on their outfits) that pay them, but it’s still kind of a cruel reality. 3 ) I don’t think a tournament has ever been decided by a referee’s decision. At the NCAA golf championships, the Duke team doesn’t get all the calls because there are no calls to make. You hit the fewest shots and you win. Period. Same thing for the US Open. Gary Woodland won the tournament (completed last night if you didn’t know or care) because he had the lowest score. No arguments, no complaints.

Now it also turns out that my favorite athlete is a professional golfer. His name is Harold Varner III (picture below, courtesy of Golf Digest).

Harold Varner III in action

Unless you’re pretty into golf, you probably have never heard of him. He is currently playing his fourth consecutive year on the PGA Tour, and he has probably played well enough this year that he will be playing on the tour next year (the top 125 players, according to a point system that rewards players based on results, automatically have full status for the next year. Varner has earned more points this year than the #125 ranked golfer from last year, and there are still several more events where he can earn more points). As I stated above, this means that he is a very highly skilled golfer; in fact, any golfer who has played in even one PGA/LPGA Tour event is a hell of a player. Relative to his PGA Tour peers, he is a solid player but as of yet, he hasn’t stood out as a top player yet (despite the fact that he has probably made about $5 million playing the game). He has not won on tour yet, though he did win the Australian PGA Championship in late 2016, which typically draws a strong field. So having said all of this, why am singling out a guy like this?

The first thing that got my attention happened in 2017. He was struggling to make the top 125, and in the last tournament of the year, he played well and just made it in at #123. After his round, he was interviewed briefly on TV, and when the interviewer complimented him for playing well under so much pressure, he shrugged it off and said something like (and this is a paraphrase), “Pressure? This isn’t pressure. This is fun. I’m really lucky to be able to play golf for a living.” I can honestly say that I’ve never heard a golfer at that level respond like that. I sensed he was a lot different than his PGA Tour compatriots (aside from the fact that he is African American, which, despite the success of Tiger Woods, there still are very few blacks who play golf professionally). And he’s repeated this type of statement in other interviews as well as on his Twitter feed. And that’s why I became a fan of his; he’s the rare professional athlete who doesn’t take himself too seriously. How refreshing is that? Golf is obviously very important to him, and I’m sure he works really hard at because I can’t imagine him being able to compete at this level without doing that. But it’s not the entire scope of his life. I can guarantee you that you would never hear Tiger or Rory McIlroy or Brooks Koepka or pretty much any other pro golfer say something like that. They would be thrilled when they did well and utterly dejected when they didn’t. Varner seems to have basically the same attitude whenever he’s out there, even when he’s struggling (as evidenced a few weeks ago, when he was in contention at the PGA Championship until Sunday, but the wheels came off and he shot 81, which took him from the top 5 to about 35th place. During the telecast, they showed him walking down the 10th fairway, smiling and talking to an official about music. He had to be disappointed about the outcome (he said as much), but instead of sulking, he was still being friendly with someone he didn’t even know).

I can’t tell you why Varner is the way he is; I can only guess. Maybe it’s because, unlike many if not most professional golfers, he was brought up in a middle class family and neighborhood, didn’t belong to a privileged country club and played at a public course, went to a public high school, did not go to a college which was a golfing powerhouse (he went to East Carolina University), and although he’s been very good, he’s never been a star. So maybe he has a different perspective on both golf and life compared to many of his peers. He also does a lot of charity events, makes many appearances at his alma mater, and recently purchased 15 acres of land to build his parents a new house. Hard not to be impressed.

Golf-wise, I don’t what the future will hold for Harold Varner III. He is only 28, and for most male pro golfers, the prime years occur in their 30s. He has had some near-misses, and I suspect he will continue to learn from them. I hope he is able to win on the PGA Tour and play for many years. Maybe he never will become a Top 25 player; as my best friend pointed out to me recently, to be the best at something requires almost complete commitment and focus, almost to the exclusion of most of the world around you. Varner admits that he sometimes has trouble with focus, and clearly golf is not the sole purpose of his existence. I know one thing; as long as he is out there playing, I will be rooting for him. And while he may or may not become a superstar in golf, he already is one of the finest people in the world of sports.

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