Short memory serves East Carolina’s Varner

East Carolina senior Harold Varner

East Carolina senior Harold Varner

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Harold Varner, East Carolina’s uber-talented senior, already has kicked away two tournaments this nascent season. Just like last year, in Iowa and Virginia. And again this summer, at a U.S. Open qualifier. At some point, isn’t scar tissue a concern?

“No,” Pirates coach Press McPhaul said recently. “Harold has a wonderfully short memory.”

So short, in fact, that after blowing the lead last month at the Wolfpack Intercollegiate, Varner had moved on an hour after he piled into the team’s 15-seat passenger van.

Seated in the back row, Varner looked at his teammates and smiled. He said: “Well, I hear the greens at Berkeley Hills” -- site of the Pirates’ next event, the AutoTrader.com Collegiate Classic in Duluth, Ga. -- “are really nice. Let’s go get it.”

Sure enough, he shot 8-under 208 at the Oct. 17-18 event to win by one.

This is a player who swaggers onto the first tee and says, “This has tee markers and holes -- my kind of course.” A player who, en route to winning the North Carolina Amateur, went back onto the course to watch his ECU teammates finish. A player of whom UNC-Wilmington coach Matt Clark says, “If you could cookie-cutter Harold Varner, every college coach in America would want five of him.”

Yet hardly any college program wanted Varner as a junior. In the summer he would pay $100 to play unlimited golf, Monday-Friday, at Gastonia (N.C.) Municipal. Didn’t matter with whom: his father, classmates, random folks. McPhaul remembers seeing a 15-year-old Varner for the first time at the North Carolina Junior. Harold wore black high-top shoes, unlaced. He stood barely taller than his golf bag. And he had this immature swing, a steep, inside-out move that produced a sweeping hook that ran forever.

More junior events would follow, but his big breakthrough came at the 2007 First Tee Open, the Champions Tour event at Pebble Beach, where he teamed with Morris Hatalsky to win the title. “I didn’t know what golf was like at that level,” Varner said. “There’s just so much opportunity out there. I knew I wanted to do that for a living.”

In high school, Varner worked as a cart boy at Gaston Country Club. That gig afforded him access to the course and its immaculate practice facilities, and it’s also where he first met his instructor, Bruce Sudderth, during his junior year.

“He was a raw talent,” said Sudderth, 71. “But I remember that he had some tremendous gifts.”

Unable to play many of the elite junior events due to financial constraints, Varner weighed few scholarship offers. One meeting between Harold’s mother, Patricia, and McPhaul was all it took to settle on ECU.

“I took a chance on him,” McPhaul said, “and I’m really grateful I did.”

The transition wasn’t easy for Varner, particularly at first. It was his first time away from home, and on the first day of class, in August 2008, he entered McPhaul’s office and proclaimed his only goal was to play the PGA Tour. When he posted a top 10 in his first college start, well, that only ramped up expectations.

“I thought I could win right away, be the big man on campus,” Varner said, laughing. “But when stuff goes bad, I was so young that I didn’t think I needed to keep working.”

Yes, there were missteps along the way, a few disappointments. In the Pirates’ season-opening event last year, Varner finished double bogey-triple bogey to drop from third to 12th. The following week, and in contention again, he tripled the last hole to tumble down the leaderboard. “He’s had to learn that you can’t change the way you do things just because you’re in the hunt,” McPhaul said.

Ask Sudderth, and Varner needs to work on visualization, to rely more on his mental game, to learn how to win. Ask McPhaul, and Varner needs to work on his short game, to harness all that talent, to continue to put in the time on the range.

“He’s come close to winning every event he’s played for two years,” Sudderth said. “What’s missing is a lack of experience.”

But in three years, Varner has blossomed into a player who finished last season No. 28 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, who swept the 2011 North Carolina stroke- and match-play amateurs, the first black golfer to win either title.

“He considers himself one of the best,” said ECU senior Adam Stephenson. “He looks at everything as a challenge.”

So, in a private moment after his second college victory on Oct. 4, Varner was asked by McPhaul how many days until ECU’s next event.

“I don’t know,” he replied, “but I’m going to count it up in the van.”

Reached later, Varner said: “That’s how I was taught to operate: to focus on every opportunity. No point dwelling on the past.”

Which helps explain why McPhaul and his teammates -- heck, even opposing coaches -- are bullish on Varner’s future, whatever that may bring. He is set to graduate from East Carolina next spring, when he then will pursue professional opportunities. That journey could start on the Nationwide Tour. Or the Hooters Tour. Or the eGolf Tour, which is headquartered only a half-hour from his hometown.

When McPhaul was asked about his senior’s potential, he paused to consider. Then he smiled. “I think Harold will go as far as we could dare to dream,” he said.

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