Tour notes recap: Varner, Leonard, Howell, more

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).

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.”

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.

• • •

WHEN PERSIMMON RULED: They are soon going to be extinct, these PGA Tour players who competed with persimmon. It’s not a prospect that pleases Justin Leonard, though he long ago accepted the fact that wood was then and metal is now.

“It’s certainly changed the game quite a bit,” said Leonard, whose name is often bandied about – along with Scott Verplank's – as a guy who might have been actually hurt by modern technology. The rationale is that Leonard never hit the ball a long way, but he could work it beautifully in both directions – a true shotmaker – and today’s equipment doesn’t so much afford that luxury; instead, it rewards pure power.

But Leonard suggests that his friend, Davis Love III, was largely hurt by technology, maybe more than anyone. Leonard’s point: “Davis, and probably Greg Norman, were the two best drivers of the golf ball when I got out here, and they had a huge advantage over everybody. With all the equipment and everything, a guy like Davis or Norman wouldn’t have that advantage because there are so many guys that can hit it that far.”

True enough. Ask PGA Tour observers who have been around since the 1980s and it’s almost unanimous: No one could hit the persimmon as high, far and straight as Love.

“I think equipment kind of diminished his competitive advantage,” said Leonard, 41.

Not that Leonard feels painted into a corner. He can still compete on the courses where it’s firm and there’s a need to shape shots. And besides, back then, “I was 30 yards behind Davis and I’m still 25, 30 yards behind him.”

Leonard belongs to that fraternity of competitors who know they can’t miss fairways and must manage a golf course, not overpower it. “You look at a guy like Zach (Johnson) and the way he’s played, or Jim Furyk, the way he’s played so well over the years. It can still be done. It’s not easy and it’s not always sexy, but it can be pretty effective.”

Leonard, whose 12 Tour victories include the 1997 Open Championship, ranked 148th in driving distance on Tour last year at 277.5 yards. He doesn’t think his results have suffered by trying to chase length. He said he accepted what he was years ago. What hurt him, though, “was a patch of still trying to work the ball so much, especially with the driver.” Leonard finally decided enough was enough.

“(That’s) working against how the clubs are designed. They’re designed to go straight. Balls are designed to go straight. They’re not really designed to curve as much. So I’ve gone to hitting more of a straight ball, maybe even cutting it a little bit.”

• • •

GOOD NUMBERS: He talks of a renewed commitment and a better feel for his swing these days, and it’s hard to say that the math doesn’t support him. In his last 13 PGA Tour rounds, dating to the finale at the McGladrey Classic in November, Leonard has shot 10 rounds in the 60s, and none worse than 70.

• • •

GROWING UP RIGHT BEFORE OUR EYES: If you’re thinking it was just yesterday that Charles Howell III was a young kid leaving Oklahoma State to take on the PGA Tour world . . . well, you’ve been stuck in a bit of a time warp. Howell is 34, and though you might close your eyes and see him as that skinny 21-year-old making his pro debut at the 2000 Canon Greater Hartford Open, fact is he’s starting his 15th season.

Hard to believe, eh?

Howell doesn’t disagree, though he certainly can attest to a different frame of mind as he resumes play here in 2014. His 13 consecutive appearances at the Sony Open, for instance? “I’m a bit more mature, not as antsy or anxious,” Howell said.

Maybe the victories (two) haven’t been as plentiful as he might have envisioned, but Howell makes no excuses. He has carved out a pretty steady PGA Tour career, and he has something that matters more than all the birdies and all the money that has come his way.

“Having a family really changes (the frame of mind). I think as you keep playing out here, you realize it’s a long year.”

He keeps a significant schedule (usually 27-30 tournaments) because daughter Ansley, 3, and son Chase, 2, still travel with him and wife Heather. But he envisions just two more years of that.

“After that, I’ll play less because I don’t want to be away," Howell said. "I grew up with two parents right there. Heather had two parents right there. I don’t want my kids to grow up with me on the road.”

• • •

HE LIKES THIS QUINIELA: You’d have to say that Brian Stuard has this Sony Open-to-Humana Challenge back-to-back excursion figured out.

Finishing at 24 under, Stuard was fifth at the Humana, one week after having gone for 12 under and sixth at the Sony. Good stuff, sure, but it’s getting to be a habit with the 31-year-old. Last year he was 16 under and T-5 at Sony, 21 under and T-10 at the Humana.

Add 'em up and that’s four tournaments, four top 10s, 16 rounds, 73 under, and $758,133.

Want to take bets that he’s signed on for these two events in 2014-15?

What Stuard – who was a PGA Tour rookie at 27 in 2010, lost his card, and made it back in 2013 – is hoping for is a different look to 2013-14 than he had in 2013. Last season, Stuard piled up $690,021 in his first eight tournaments, going 60 under for 32 rounds, then he stumbled a bit; during his final 17 tournaments he was 44 over and earned just $342,007.

• • •

AND HE DOES, TOO: Jerry Kelly is another who smiles at this Sony-Humana trip. He finished third at the Sony two weeks ago, then came back with a T-13 at the Humana. The last time Kelly had back-to-back top-15 finishes was 2011, when he was T-9 at the Sony and T-13 at the Humana.

• • •

THE MACHINE RESTS: Zach Johnson has earned the little break he’ll take for himself.

You’d have to go back to last summer’s Open Championship for the last time the unheralded Johnson finished a tournament over par. He was 2 over at Muirfield, but since then he’s been hot. Make that red hot. In 11 tournaments since – six at the end of 2013, five to begin 2013-14 – Johnson has been in red numbers in each, a whopping 121 under for 44 rounds.

The consistency has been remarkable. He has shot 70 or better in 42 of the 44 rounds. The lone blips? A 72 in Round 2 of the Deutsche Bank Championship and a 74 in Round 3 of the recent Hyundai Tournament of Champions.

Johnson has been in the 60s in 35 of those 44 rounds, including each of his last nine. Over those 11 tournaments, he has two wins, eight top 10s, and has been outside the top 25 just twice (none of which includes the playoff victory over Tiger Woods in the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge).

Now if it’s possible to sweeten the picture, it’s this: Stretching back to his last missed cut, at the U.S. Open, Johnson has averaged 67.38 on Sundays.

• • •

ROUGH TIMES: But just to assure you that not everyone is rolling along smoothly, Jamie Lovemark continues a rough adjustment to PGA Tour life.

He finished 54 holes at just 6 under and didn’t qualify for the final 18 holes at the Humana. Factor that in and Lovemark has missed the cut in 25 of the 46 PGA Tour tournaments in which he has played.

His lone top 10 remains the playoff loss he suffered at the Frys.com Open in 2009, which was just his 12th start. Since then, Lovemark has gone 34 tournaments without finishing better than 20th.

• • •

LAPPING THE FIELD: To put into perspective how impressive Patrick Reed’s 63-63-63 start was at the Humana Challenge, consider this: Had there been a hybrid 10-shot rule, meaning you had to be within 10 of the lead to play the final 18 holes, only 10 other players would have been teeing it up besides Reed.

The week before at the Sony Open? There was a two-way tie at 199 and the other 69 players who qualified for the final 18 holes were all within 10.

• • •

MAJOR PURSUIT: Jimmy Walker is your leader in Ryder Cup points for Team USA. The remarkable thing is, he’s there without having done a thing in the major championships, where the only points were rewarded in 2013.

Of course, being a late bloomer, Walker, 35, hasn’t had a chance to prove himself in golf’s biggest championships. He’ll make his Masters debut in a few months and has, in fact, made the cut in just two of his six starts in the majors.

How important are the majors? Well, if he were an American, Adam Scott would actually lead Walker in points, based on his Masters win a year ago and strong efforts at the Open Championship (T-3) and PGA Championship (T-5).

Exempt into all four majors for the first time in his career, Walker certainly controls his own fate regarding a Ryder Cup berth.

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