Harold Varner III On His Style & Foundation
The golfer and Jordan Brand family member talks about creating more access to golf, getting advice from MJ and the new Air Jordan IV Golf.
Interview: Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins
Photography: Candace Evans
All people, athletes or not, have important items they’ve kept close throughout their lives. For some, it’s a car, a stuffed animal, a good luck charm or a momento that stirs up good memories. For Harold Varner III, it’s always been a golf club, any golf club.
Harold’s trajectory as a pro golfer began at age two when his father, Harold Varner Jr., bought him his first clubs. Though they were toy versions made of plastic, those starter sticks fueled a competitive passion for golf that Harold still has today. As Harold grew out of his toddler phase, his dad cut down a middle iron so his son could continue practicing his swing.
Harold was born in Akron, Ohio, in the same hospital as his favorite hoops star. When he was six years old, his family moved to Gastonia, North Carolina, about 30 minutes west of Charlotte. There, Harold found an uplifting community that, along with his parents and sister, helped shape him into a skilled, fun-loving athlete.
At nine years old, Harold got his first full set of clubs to play in his first tournament. After a stand-out high school career, he committed to East Carolina University, where he became the school’s first Conference USA Player of the Year.
After turning pro in 2012, Harold’s rise continued. In 2015, he secured 25th place on the Web.com Tour money list and became the first African-American player to earn his PGA card through that tour (now called the Korn Ferry Tour). Harold was only the second Black player to make it to the PGA Tour. Today, through his HV3 Foundation, Harold is working to ensure that more Black players get a chance to follow in his footsteps. He also hopes to educate others by sharing his experiences, as well as those of friends, mentors and colleagues. As the host of his own podcast, “Rippin’ It,” Harold leads dialogues about culture, golf and being an athlete.
Although he’s still working on securing his first PGA Tour victory, Harold scored his first international trophy by winning the 2016 Australian PGA Championship over the former No. 1 golfer in the world. He now has a pro low round of 62 and has continued to build in 2021, with a second-place finish at the RBC Heritage tournament in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
We recently sat down with Harold, the only PGA golfer wearing Jordan Brand head-to-toe, to discuss his upbringing, tour life and the fresh new wave of Air Jordan retros that have hit the links.
You received your first set of toy golf clubs at two years old. What do you remember about getting into golf at such a young age?
I’m not sure who got them for me, but I still have a picture with them. They had a blue tube and yellow clubs. That was the first set I had, and then when I turned five, I got my first real clubs, and they were cut down. When I turned nine, I got my first set of clubs and odds, and then when I turned 10, I got the whole matching set with evens.
I remember my dad going to a guy who cut down clubs for me, too. Eventually, you do grow into them. What about golf has kept you playing and connected to the sport, besides having your dad get you into the game?
Access helped out a lot and also the fact that golf is an individual sport. I played basketball in the seventh and eighth grades, but I didn’t get to start, so I left. My sister was a swimmer, and even though I had fun trying out baseball, it happened during the golf season, so I never pursued it.
When I was younger, there was a little course in Gastonia, North Carolina, that cost $100 for the entire summer, and I could play whenever I wanted, Monday through Friday, as long as I called for a tee time. I’d just live out there with 20-30 other kids. $100 was a lot of money for my family, though in hindsight, the value was incredible; I can’t believe it existed. I never got burnt out, so it was awesome. I loved getting better each day.
Golf was a way for me to go to school and get a scholarship. Once I got to college, I was like, “Man, I can get paid to do this?” I just always loved playing golf. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
Now that you’ve been in this for a few decades, how important was it for you to have that kind of access early on?
The most important thing in any kid’s life is access. If they don’t have the opportunity to see it, learn it or practice it, they more than likely won’t be able to achieve it. That’s sadly the way it is.
We fight for kids to have access and be able to compete with our HV3 Foundation. We want to change kids’ lives. It’s not about keeping the kid out of trouble; it’s about exposing them to something they’ll love doing and giving them what they need to keep going.
It’s pretty simple, but there are factors that make it complicated. We try to come up with all these ways to help people instead of just being like, “Why don’t you let the kids play for free?” It’s gotten too hard for kids to just get onto a golf course. Once you get kids into anything in life, most parents will follow. I’m having my first kid in October, so when my kid shows that he wants to do something, I’m going to be intrigued and support it.
In September, we’re starting a mentorship program. The mentor takes three mentees and does four things a year with them, just shows them love and cares about them. It gives me goosebumps because it goes beyond sports into helping the kids as a whole.
How can people help make golf more inclusive, especially for Black athletes?
The best chance a Black player can have at reaching the professional level of golf is to be sponsored a little earlier than when they get out of college. Kids need to know that they can play on the PGA Tour at a younger age. If you look at a PGA Tour list, there are people from all over the world. It’s not that there’s no diversity. There are just no Black people.
I’m not here to beat around the bush. For a Black kid, it’s cheaper to go to the YMCA 100 times than to the golf course. It happened to be the opposite for me. For $100, I played unlimited golf. So, we need to get to the root cause, which is financial, and fix it.
What were some of the early challenges you had with golf? Were there things that you were working on or trying to evolve?
I didn’t take a real lesson until I was 16, so I didn’t think of anything as a challenge. I just tried to shoot as low as I could. I would set goals to shoot something, beat someone or win a tournament. I just played golf.
I remember picking up free game at nine years old from a swing coach who taught adults at a driving range, a guy who used to work at the course. Sometimes, as a kid, you have a better swing than the adults, just by not knowing better. What did that training at 16 teach you?
Well, yeah, I got way better. When I was 16, I was already good. I had a feeling I was going to play golf in college. I had two teammates in high school who were taking lessons from this guy in Gastonia, and I was working at the country club where he taught. He came in one day, and I asked him to take a look at my golf swing. I told him I wanted to understand the fundamentals, and I wanted to play golf in college. I kept getting better after that.
When you’re young, you’re just trying to get better and beat the people in and around your area. For me, that was in Gastonia, in Charlotte, in the state of North Carolina and then nationally. On the PGA Tour, yeah, there are some challenges. At 16, I was just excited to see how good I could get.
As you’ve matured in the sport, I imagine it requires considerably more mental toughness, too.
Correct. Yeah, it’s not about how my swing looks or what this instructor told me. It’s about what I can do to beat the other guys. I really enjoy figuring that out — how to get it done.
What puts you in the right headspace for all of that — to have not just toughness but also creativity and curiosity?
I have toughness, but it’s not really toughness; it’s the enjoyment of being out there, man. I play against the best players in the world for a lot of money, and it gives me a lifestyle that I never thought I would have by chasing a white golf ball. So, it’s pretty simple.
I didn’t grow up poor, but yeah, I’ve been on welfare, and I’ve come home with the lights off. I’m appreciative of where I came from and where I am now.
Switching topics, you’ve got a headcover named Gerald. What’s the story behind that?
It’s an awesome story. Back in 2014, I was playing in Raleigh, and my college teammate was caddying for me. He sent me a video of a puppet he found at a teacher’s store. I thought he was joking, but he was like, “Hey man, you’ve got to get this headcover and put it on your driver or your 3 wood.” So he caddies, puts it on there, and it’s been on ever since. It’s pretty funny.
What does it feel like to be part of the Jordan Brand family as the only head-to-toe golf athlete?
Oh, it’s awesome. Obviously, the Jumpman is an iconic logo, and the shoes are great. For me, the coolest part is being involved in deciding what I get to wear. It’s fun. I can call MJ and be like, “What do you think about this shirt?” Other brands might just tell you what to wear.
I’d play butt naked, but thankfully, I don’t have to. [Laughs] I don’t know why, but I love wearing white pants. I love white, pink and purple, which aren’t the iconic colors of Jordan Brand. The purple is for my school, East Carolina in Greenville, North Carolina. I wear it every Sunday.
Jordan Brand is really like a family, and I enjoy that part of it. The first time I went to campus, we met with Gentry [Humphrey, the VP of Footwear at Jordan Brand]. He made shoes for all the groomsmen at my wedding. Things like that are so personal and make me grateful to be part of this Brand. It’s the bigger picture; it’s not just about me wearing it on the golf course.
I like that you’re switching it up and bringing different colors, not only to the Brand but to the course. When you have a sponsor like Jordan Brand, it disrupts the way people understand the game of golf. It’s not like there are a ton of Jumpman logos on the green. What’s it like being a part of that and exposing people to a logo they might mainly associate with basketball?
At first, I thought, “Why me?” Then I met MJ and people from the Brand. I heard what they wanted to do. It’s obviously about winning, but it’s also about how you carry yourself, the things you do in the community. They were like, “Run your journey, run your course, do the best you can. You’re one of the most elite golfers in the world. Run your course.”
People like to talk about swag. The best players in the world have swag because they’re just chill; they do what they do. They trust in themselves and their work to provide the results. You stop thinking about the outside. You don’t worry about anything else except what you need to do to perform.
I like what you’re saying about swag. You have to find your own, and when you do, it makes you distinct. Then, people start looking to you for those things. The more people see you perform, the more they’re like, “Yo, I want to be in purple.” It’s a domino effect.
Correct. You trust more and more in what you do best. There are people who question it under pressure. If you work hard enough, and you keep doing the right things, it’s just a matter of time. I haven’t won on the PGA Tour yet, and that excites me.
MJ gives me advice all the time and pushes me. One time, I was in the last group at the PGA Championship, and I shot 81. It was really hard, don’t get me wrong. He called, and we just went through that round, what happened and how I got ahead of myself. He knows how to motivate you, whether it’s asking questions or talking a little smack, kind of like a good parent. I think we need more of that support in the Black community and in the world as a whole.
Yeah, just a touch of nuance, as well. Jumping back into the product. What’s it like to see and compete in the Air Jordan IV as a golf shoe?
The reason I love the Air Jordan IV is that the silhouette and most of the colorways match my outfits. My favorite Air Jordans are the 3s and the 11s. The Air Jordan IV Golf shoe feels secure and fits tighter around the middle of your foot. It’s a solid shoe and looks amazing on the course.
It’s one thing to see a shoe in the streets, but I imagine it hits a little different when you’re playing amongst peers on the golf course, right?
Oh man, there are grown men yelling. I’ll never forget this: MJ told me that everyone would be asking me for my shoes and that I’d be fine once I learned how to say “no.” In my head, I didn’t anticipate it happening, but it did. He couldn’t have been more spot-on.
Let’s get into your motto, “We here.” Where does that come from, and what does it mean to you?
When I was in college, I lived in a house with two of my teammates. If we played well, we’d be like, “We here!” Ever since then, whenever we’d go somewhere, any mini-tours or tournaments, I’d be like, “We here. Let’s get it.”
You were named the “Most Fun Person on Tour” by a major golf publication. How did you earn that reputation?
I love life, even though life’s hard. There’s always going to be adversity. I’m about to have a kid, so things in my life are about to change. I just enjoy every second. It’s easy to have fun, man. I’ve had enough bad times, just hard times growing up. If I’m going to be grinding, I need to enjoy some of life, too.
The Air Jordan IV Golf releases to members September 1 on the Nike App with a wider release September 3 on Jordan.com and from select retailers.