ARDMORE, Pa. — Harold Varner has had plenty of big moments on the golf course.
Winning the N.C. Amateur in 2011 was one of them. Winning the First Tee Open in 2007 with pro Morris Hatalsky at Pebble Beach was another.
Now Gastonia’s Varner, who played at East Carolina, is ready for another: He’s playing in his first U.S. Open this week at Merion Golf Club.
The precocious Varner, 22, isn’t selling himself short.
“I want to play good golf and execute shots,” he said Tuesday after his practice round on Merion’s 6,996-yard East Course. “I want to have a chance to win.”
Varner then added a qualifier.
“But I know these guys are good.”
Yes, Varner is nothing if not confident. An alternate for one of six potential spots in the Open, he heard via Twitter last weekend that several golfers were already dropping out. So he got in his car and began to drive to Pennsylvania, even before getting the official word.
Varner, a Forestview High graduate, has played on the Charlotte-based eGolf Tour since graduating from East Carolina in 2012. He got his start in golf as a kid at Gastonia Municipal Golf Course (now Catawba Creek), where he could play all he wanted for $100 a week.
“I got addicted to it,” he said. “I couldn’t play football or basketball because I wasn’t tall enough or strong enough. So golf seemed like a good fit.
“I knew I had talent, so that helped. And I could see that if by beating a few people while I was just average, I knew if I worked hard, I could be better than (most) average players. So with a little bit of luck and if your footsteps are ordered by God, you give yourself half a chance.”
With the help of his dad Harold Varner II and taking advantage of the First Tee of Charlotte’s youth programs, the young Varner quickly progressed through the ranks. At Forestview, he was the state 3A runner-up twice. At East Carolina, he helped the Pirates make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history and was Conference USA’s golfer of the year in 2012.
If he hadn’t received the call from the U.S. Golf Association with the news that he’d made the Open field, he probably could have easily driven on to Gordonsville, Va., site of this week’s eGolf tournament. He’s grinding it out in golf’s minor leagues, winning $21,440 so far with a best finish of second at a tournament in Southport, N.C.
“(eGolf) has shown me how to compete, how to travel, how to shoot low numbers and not to worry about what someone else is doing,” Varner said as he stood off the 10th green at Merion.
“But this is way better.”