For mini-tour phenom Varner, L.A.'s easy choice

Harold Varner III, a hot hand on the Web.com Tour of late, is receiving an exemption into the PGA Tour's 2014 Northern Trust Open (shown here during the 2013 U.S. Open).

Harold Varner III, a hot hand on the Web.com Tour of late, is receiving an exemption into the PGA Tour's 2014 Northern Trust Open (shown here during the 2013 U.S. Open).

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If Harold Varner III had circled in the boldest ink possible his first tournament of the Web.Com Tour season – the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship on Feb. 13-16 – one can only imagine how excited he was to erase it.

Can’t blame a guy for taking a better offer, so say goodbye to Bogota and say hello to Hollywood. The Country Club de Bogota? No, thanks. Varner will play famed Riviera, instead.

“I’m so excited. I just wish it were tomorrow,” said the 23-year-old Varner, after receiving word that he had been given the 2014 Northern Trust Exemption. Unfortunately for Varner, the tournament isn’t for a few weeks (Feb. 13-16), but he concedes he might need the time to come back to earth.

“I’m honored, and I’m going to try and make the most out of it.”

• See all of senior writer Jim McCabe's weekly PGA Tour notes right here.

The exemption, given annually since 2009, provides an opportunity for a talented golfer who represents the advancement of diversity in golf. Varner surely fits the bill, because he’s been blazing an impressive trail for himself, while setting new standards along the way.

Born in Akron, Ohio, but raised in Gastonia, N.C., Varner starred in golf at Forestview High School and in 2011 became the first black golfer to win the North Carolina Amateur. He also won the 2011 N.C. Amateur Match Play title, the first player to take both championships in the same season, but he wasn’t through.

At East Carolina University, Varner was Conference USA player of the year in 2012, and as a junior led the Pirates to their first appearance in the NCAA finals. Upon graduating in 2012, Varner turned pro and immediately went to work trying to figure this all out.

To be fair, he’s done OK, too.

“I’m just trying to learn and to keep it simple,” he said. “I don’t want to look too far ahead. I’ve done a good job up to now in controlling only what I can control.”

His spot in the field at the Northern Trust will be an opportunity unlike any he has had, and it comes at a time when Varner is playing arguably his best golf. All he’s done since October is win three of the four 54-hole competitions in which he has played on the eGolf Professional Tour’s winter series in Florida. Granted, Varner concedes the fields have been slim – anywhere from 15 to 30 players – and we’re not talking major-league competition, either. But, “it’s competition, and that’s all that matters; you can’t get any better without playing.”

In those 12 competitive rounds since October, Varner has shot in the 60s eight times, further proof that he’s on his game. Then again, he was for most of 2013, too. Varner finished fifth on the eGolf money list ($54,418) and earned a qualifying spot into the U.S. Open at Merion. The good roll continued in the fall when he finished joint 32nd at the Web.Com Tour Qualifying Tournament and earned status for 2014.

Positive steps everywhere since graduating from East Carolina, and everything that has happened in the last year sort of validates the first taste of success Varner achieved. It was 2007 at the Nature Valley First Tee Open with playing partner Morris Hatalsky.

Pebble Beach? Now Riviera? Pretty impressive stops. But Varner is hopeful they are just two of many.

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