Is PGA Tour rookie Harold Varner III of Gastonia too ‘cordial’ for his own good?

Harold Varner III watches his tee shot on the 16th hole during Thursday’s first round of the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.
Harold Varner III watches his tee shot on the 16th hole during Thursday’s first round of the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. AP

Gastonia’s Harold Varner III is having a solid rookie season on the PGA Tour. Now if he can eliminate the distractions that come from his tendency to be nice to just about everybody he encounters, things might get even better.

“I’m still not doing a good job of it,” Varner said Thursday after he shot a 2-over par 72 in the first round of the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club.

“I want to be cordial. I think people should be. That’s how people are in North Carolina. I have a hard time telling people to screw off.”

So even at Baltusrol Golf Club in the state of New Jersey, where he said he’d never visited (except to change planes at Newark’s airport), Varner took time during his round to interact with fans and chat with playing partners John Senden and Michael Block.

“I don’t want to get used to this life,” said Varner, who played at East Carolina and Forestview High. “It’s a different world.”

I don’t want to get used to this life. It’s a different world.

Harold Varner III

But Varner is clearly enjoying himself on golf’s biggest stage. The week of the Super Bowl, he put on a Cam Newton No. 1 Carolina Panthers jersey as he walked up the 16th fairway in Phoenix, then dabbed his way to the green. After the second round of the Players Championship, he turned ventriloquist while using a puppet-club head cover to answer an interviewer’s question.

Varner’s ebullience notwithstanding, he’s doing fine so far in his first full-time season on the tour. Although he must play well Friday to make the cut at Baltusrol (he was tied for 81st, seven shots behind leader Jimmy Walker), he’s had four top-10 finishes (including a season-best seventh at the Quicken Loans National at Washington’s Congressional Country Club in June) and banked more than $1.2 million.

Varner was named to the PGA Championship field after Tiger Woods withdrew.

“I’m not doing anything crazy, just playing solid, keeping it simple,” said Varner. “I got a little gassed last week, so that kind of sucked. But I couldn’t not play in Canada, because I wasn’t sure that I would get in here.”

Varner was talking about the Canadian Open, where he missed the cut. Only a few days before, Tiger Woods announced he would miss the PGA Championship and the rest of the season. His replacement was Varner, who had the next spot on the alternate list.

“I thought (Woods) wasn’t going to play, and it was just a coincidence that one black guy goes out and another goes in,” Varner said, laughing. “I wanted to get in, I didn’t care who withdrew. But when I saw that he was out for the rest of the season, and my name went up there as his replacement, I thought, ‘My gosh.’ ”

4 Major championships Varner has played

Varner and Woods are the only two African-American players on the tour. Varner, like countless other young players, grew up idolizing Woods when Varner first started playing at Gastonia Municipal Golf Course (now Catawba Creek) and later Gaston Country Club.

Varner said Woods introduced himself to him at a tournament one day by walking up to him and asking, with a smile: “You gonna get your (stuff) together?”

“I should have said, ‘Yeah, dog,’ ” Varner said. “Instead, I was like, ‘Have a good week.’ But I wanted to say, ‘When are you gonna get healthy?’ But I couldn’t say that, either.

“I think the tour needs him. I’m looking forward to having him out here. He’s the reason I watch golf. I wouldn’t watch if he’s not playing. When I was a kid, I couldn’t fathom how far he hit it. I’m just pulling for him to get healthy. It’s a brutal place to be for him.”

Now Varner is trying to take advantage of having Woods’ spot in the PGA, the fourth major championship Varner has played (he has played in the U.S. Open twice and tied for 66th in the British Open two weeks ago).

“This is a big golf course and I like that,” Varner said of Baltusrol. “It’s like what I grew up on. I’m not a big fan of hitting your irons out there, weaving your way around. I like to wham! Drive it as hard as I can hit it.”

Varner said Baltusrol is similar in that way to Congressional, where he had his career-best finish.

“I like the big golf courses – Congressional, San Antonio, (Charlotte’s) Quail Hollow. What you see is what you get.”