Harold Varner III was about to tee off Saturday in the Rex Hospital Open when he got just the right kind of advice.
Jim Burns, a first-tee starter at TPC Wakefield Plantation, told Varner, “Keep up the pace you’ve had and you should shoot 62 today.”
Varner smiled and told Burns he had never had a 62 on the Web.com Tour, only to have Burns reply, “There’s a first time for everything.”
That’s Varner’s version of the story and it’s exactly what he did, carding a 9-under-par 62 to zoom to the top of the leaderboard in the third round. On a day filled with exciting twists, turns and aces at Wakefield, the former East Carolina golfer from Gastonia surged to a two-shot lead at 15-under 198.
Steve Marino, who was reeling off eagles, had a 66 to grab a share of second place. Also at 13-under 200 were two-time Rex champion Kyle Thompson (69), Chase Wright (65) and Scott Drew (68).
“On days like today you just try to shoot as low as you can,” Varner said. And did.
Varner, 24, is a young man in a hurry. He tied for second in last year’s Rex and is eager to break through and win his first Web.com Tour event. He’s ready to make the move to the PGA Tour.
Varner had so much leftover energy after his career round that he bounded up a steep hill behind the 18th green to the clubhouse, never breaking stride.
Varner opened the Rex with a 1-under 70, then had a 66 on Friday. It was that four-shot progression that caused Burns to become prophetic Saturday.
Varner, who has a compact, powerful swing, chipped in from 60 feet for eagle at the par-5 fourth hole and added five birdies on the front nine, turning with a 7-under 29. Anything seemed possible and he birdied the par-4 10th – his fifth in a row.
“I just wanted to birdie every hole,” Varner said of his mindset.
Bogeys at the 11th and 14th holes were hiccups in his round, but he birdied another three in a row starting at the par-5 15th. He just missed a 12-footer for birdie at the 18th.
Marino collected three eagles in a five-hole span on the front nine. The former Virginia golfer was the second player in tour history with three eagles on the same nine – Lee M. Williamson did it at the 2007 Rochester Area Charities Showdown.
Marino eagled the third by holing out a 57-yard wedge shot, then knocked in an 18-foot eagle putt on the fourth. At the seventh, he jarred his 179-yard approach shot.
“Just one of those lucky things. Probably will never happen again,” Marino said.
Marino didn’t have the only hole-outs Saturday. Greg Eason and Jhared Hack each had a hole-in-one.
Hack used a 7-iron from 170 yards at the fifth hole, and Eason used a 4-iron from 225 yards at the 12th for his first career ace.
Varner, who learned the game at Gaston Country Club, is 14th on the tour money list this year and was second at the Panama Claro Championship in February. He was 30th in money in 2014, nearly earning his playing rights on the PGA Tour.
Varner was tied for the Rex lead after three rounds last year, only to have Byron Smith win on Sunday with a 66 as Varner had a 70.
“I learned I was capable but I still had a lot to learn,” Varner said. “I can’t get ahead of myself.”
A victory Sunday would push Varner to No. 1 on the 2015 Web.com money list and he said it would be “cool” to win so close to home and his alma mater, where he was the Conference USA player of the year.
“But the key for me is to stay in the moment,” Varner said. “I just have to focus on the now, on getting it off the tee on one.”
And maybe get a few more words from Burns, who saw Varner at the 16th hole later Saturday, shook his hand and said, “There’s a first time for everything.”