PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Harold Varner III has been trying to play a practice round with Tiger Woods since the Honda Classic in February, and their schedules finally synced up for two nine-hole rounds ahead of this week’s Players Championship.
They teed off on the back nine with Bryson DeChambeau at 8:40 a.m. Wednesday at TPC Sawgrass and walked off 18 around three hours later.
“It was good. Got to talk about some things,” said Varner, who also played nine holes with Woods on Tuesday. “I think that’s just pretty cool that he opened up.”
They talked a lot but didn’t talk much golf. More general life stuff that can prove really useful for a 27-year-old on Tour.
When they were finishing up on the 18th green, Varner told Woods a story.
Varner grew up in North Carolina and went to the Wells Fargo Championship when he was roughly 14 years old, back when it was called the Wachovia Championship. Tiger was playing that year and Varner posted up trying to get his autograph.
Woods stiffed him.
“I was like, dude, you owe this (practice round) to me,” Varner said. “He was just dying laughing.”
Now on the other side of the ropes, Varner understands just how much Woods has to deal with while he’s at work.
Wednesday’s work day was an efficient one for Woods. He hit 6 of 7 fairways and played a lot of safe iron shots into the greens for two-putt pars, but he wasn’t really focused on today’s pin placements.
He hit the ball really well for the most part last week at Quail Hollow and that seemed to carry over Wednesday. The story this week is whether or not his putter will betray him again. We’ll get our first indication Thursday when he tees off at 1:52 p.m. with Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
“Last week, I just didn’t make anything,” Woods said. “Geez, I hit – one of the days I hit a bunch of greens, like 15 greens, and I still turned a 63 or 64 into 68. I just didn’t have a feel for the golf course and I didn’t make adjustments.”
Woods was eighth on Tour in strokes gained putting entering the Wells Fargo and dropped all the way to 53rd this week.
Distance off the tee has been the least of Woods’ concerns. Accuracy, yes, but he was much better in that regard last week. He’s 24th on Tour in average driving distance and was often a good 20 yards past his much younger playing partners Wednesday.
“I’ve never been a long hitter … but it is impressive how far he’s hitting it. It’s unbelievable,” Varner said. “I better putt it good.”
Varner was six years old when Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes. Too young to remember. But he watched a documentary about it when he was 10. Varner, one of only two black players on Tour along with Woods, didn’t realize how significant that margin of victory was. And he didn’t yet know why Woods’ race mattered at a place like Augusta National.
“I appreciated him when I was growing up because of how good he was,” Varner said. “If Tiger was green we’d (still) be like, ‘Oh my god, Tiger’s really good.’ But I respect him way more because of how he handled himself with all the questions and stuff. I’ve never been Top 50 in the FedEx Cup and I get those questions. I’m like, man, it’s 2018, and to be No. 1 in the world, he was for sure gonna get some weird questions.”
Woods wasn’t back playing like this when Varner got his first win at the 2016 Australian PGA Championship. Now that they’re really peers, Varner said he appreciated Woods’ candor and advice on a number of topics.
“We relate on a lot of things I think,” Varner said. “I don’t know what he experienced growing up, but we related to how it was being the only black golfer growing up. It’s pretty cool that he was No. 1 in the world and he didn’t think about it either, but we get asked the question all the time. It’s kind of weird. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen, and to be able to relate to him is pretty cool.”
Like Woods, Varner also finished T-55 at the Wells Fargo and feels his game is coming around. A hip injury stalled his progress this season and he missed four consecutive cuts prior to last week. Now he’s healthy again and flashed a big grin talking about his chances this week.
“I’m pumped to get going,” Varner said. “Beginning of the year it would really hurt sometimes, holy cow. We’re good now, man. Health is wealth.”
No one understands that more than Woods, who appears fully healthy again for the first time since 2013. He won the Players Championship that year and is now swinging it as well as he has since.
Throughout this comeback, Woods has provided a lot of memorable experiences for young players who used to idolize him. Now he’s hoping they’ll all be looking up to him on the leaderboard come Sunday.