FORT WORTH, Texas — If Harold Varner III was disappointed with his round Saturday at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club, it was difficult to tell.
Among the 13 golfers within three shots of the leader, Xander Schauffele, Varner was one of two not to break par in the third round. He missed three birdie attempts on Nos. 7, 16 and 17 from inside 8 feet. He made his lone birdie of the day on the first hole, getting up and down from the greenside bunker with ease. He made his lone bogey on No. 14 when his second shut plugged in the bunker.
After sharing the lead in the first round and entering as the 36-hole leader Saturday, he enters the final round two strokes back of Schauffele in a tie for seventh.
“I’ve obviously still got a chance,” Varner said. “You shoot even par on some Saturdays, it can kind of get away from you a little bit, having a chance to win. I just want to have a chance with nine holes to go, and right now we have a chance with 18.”
He has been in positions like this before. He played in the second-to-last round group in the final round at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club earlier this season and closed with a 3-over 74 to finish tied for 13th. In 2019, he was in the final group at the PGA Championship with Brooks Koepka at Bethpage, shooting an 81 on Sunday to finish tied for 36th.
“He’s always been ahead of most in his ability to be resilient,” said Press McPhaul, who was Varner’s coach at East Carolina. “I mean it’s a learned trait for everybody, right? But some just seem to have more of an innate ability to bounce back, so whenever he was in college, I never worried about him playing. You worry about some guys if they go to a par-5 and make a double, they might tank. But with him, a bad shot or a bad break, something seemed to sharpen his focus.”
McPhaul is now the coach at NC State and he had Varner address his team on a Zoom call earlier in the month. The lesson was about adversity. He recalled his topped 3-wood at Riviera on No. 10 that traveled just 129 yards, a shot the weekend duffer is accustomed to, not a touring pro.
“He talked about just blowing that off, laughing about it and moving quickly to the next shot. He was like, ‘OK, move on and let’s get the next one.’ He’s the most ready on the big stage with what he’s done the last two days than he’s ever been,” McPhaul said before Varner’s round. “He’s been maturing here in the last couple of years and I just think it’s indicating he’s ready to get in position and do this.”
Given the unrest around the country since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Varner, as one of three African-American golfers on the PGA Tour, has said he wants to impact lives and make a difference in the game of golf even if he did see discrimination growing up in the sport.
A win Sunday would be the first of his PGA Tour career and come at a unique time in history. He would become the first African-American golfer to win at Colonial as well.
But those are questions he would rather not discuss right now. When he is at the course, his focus is there.
After his round he said he would work on his putting after striking the ball well (13 of 14 fairways). After making 125 and 113-7 feet of putts in the first two rounds, he made just a little more than 36 feet on Saturday.
To make history — personal and perhaps otherwise — he will have to perform better. He has three major winners — Gary Woodland, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth — between him and Schauffele on the leaderboard. He has three more — Patrick Reed, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy — just behind him.
“I know what to do, I’ve just got to go out there and do it now,” Varner said. “It’s a little different. I feel like every time I’m even more and more capable of getting it done, so I’m just excited about having a chance.”