Ninety Six, SC – Earlier this summer, Harold Varner III of Gastonia, NC exited the college ranks and entered the professional ranks, looking to make good on his vast potential following a standout career at East Carolina University. Through two rounds of the eGolf Tour’s Championship at Star Fort, the former Pirate star sits on the precipice of win No. 1, having notched rounds of 69-63—132 (12-under) to grab a one-shot lead heading into Friday’s final round of the inaugural event.
The Championship at Star Fort is the 19th event of the 2012 eGolf Tour season and is being contested this week at The Golf Club at Star Fort in Ninety-Six, SC. The event is one of ten 54-hole events on the 2012 eGolf Tour schedule.
In Wednesday’s opening round, Varner birdied three of his first six holes before cooling down a bit en route to a 3-under 69 that placed him T21 through 18 holes of play – four shots off the lead held by Chris Epperson and Mikel Martinson.
On Thursday, Varner made his fast opening-round start look like a minor blip on the radar, posting a staggering eight birdies in the first 10 holes of his second round to race out to 7-under on the day.
“I just pretty much wanted to give myself a shot on every hole,” said Varner, 22. “I had a lesson with Bruce (Sudderth) before I left, just working on aligning my feet and my shoulders while putting. Outside of that, I wasn’t thinking about much, just trying to hit good shots.”
A 25-foot birdie bomb at the par-4 first set the tone for a career-best day for Varner, who followed it up two holes later with a 15-footer at the par-4 third. A bogey at the lengthy par-3 fourth slowed his momentum, but it was then that Varner went into golf’s version of overdrive.
Birdies on Nos. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 took the eGolf Tour rookie from possible contender to possible winner, in turn moving the affable newcomer to 7-under on the day and 10-under for the week.
“They went really fast. I wasn’t really thinking about it while it was going on,” Varner said. “I executed the game plan to a ‘T.’ If you could picture how you would want it to go, that is how.”
The birdie at the par-4 10th led to a four-hole stretch of pars that likely felt like a four-hole stretch of double-bogeys, given his birdie barrage over the first two hours of his round.
“ It wasn’t frustrating when I started making pars,” he said. “I knew I had something going good, so the key was to keep giving yourself looks.”
A birdie at the par-5 15th re-ignited Varner’s round and took him to 8-under for the day. At the uphill par-4 18th, one more stellar approach to 10 feet left him with a closing birdie to finish off a 9-under 63 in the second round. His stunning effort on day two left him at 12-under 132, and in sole possession of the event’s 36-hole lead.
Varner is in his first season as a professional after finishing up his standout ECU career at the NCAA Championship this past June at Riviera Country Club. The former Pirate was arguably the program’s best all-time player, earning 2012 Conference USA “Player of the Year” honors, as well as three All-Conference USA nods. His career scoring average of 72.28 set an all-time school record, and his 20-under total at the 2010 Outer Banks Intercollegiate set the program’s all-time single-event scoring record.
But this is the professional ranks, and even the most impeccable of resumes are tossed on the floor in a world of “what have you done out here.” For Varner, that is just fine with him.
“It’s a lot more fun than amateur or college golf, playing out here, playing professionally,” he said. “Everyone talks about how you’re on your own, but that’s the fun part. You feel like you’re working on the right things with the right people, and you’re doing it on your time. It’s great.”
The rigors of modern day college golf include early mornings in the gym, strict practice regimens, and the need to adapt one’s academic schedule to the needs of the team – all in the bubble of an individual game. Don’t take it the wrong way, but Varner somewhat enjoys his days on the course being all about him.
“You go when you want to go, there’s no ‘you have to work on this’ or ‘you have to do that,’” he said. “You fix your problems on your own. I don’t have to worry about what everyone else is doing, I just go to work. I hope that doesn’t sound bad, but it’s true.”
A win at Star Fort would be a wonderful sendoff for Varner, who will head to Houston, TX next week for PGA TOUR Q-School’s pre-qualifying stage – the first of what could be four steps on his route to golf’s grandest stage in 2013.
Zach Sucher of Birmingham, AL, Lanto Griffin of Blacksburg, VA and Chris Epperson of Hilton Head Island, SC are tied for second, one shot behind Varner at 11-under 133.
Sucher, who opened his week with a bogey-free 66 on Wednesday, began Thursday’s second round in steady-but-slow fashion, posting two birdies and a bogey in his first eight holes en route to a 1-under 35 on his opening nine.
A five-par start to his closing nine did little to vault the former University of Alabama-Birmingham golfer up the leaderboard, but a voracious close to his round more than put him in contention with 18 holes to play. A birdie at the par-5 15th took Sucher to 2-under for his round, and proved to be somewhat of a watershed moment, leading to birdies at 16, 17 and 18 to close out a second-round 67 that moved him to 11-under par.
Last year, Sucher made 11 starts as a member of the Web.com Tour, making just five cuts and collecting $10,773 in winnings. That experience, he said, got him ready for a 2012 campaign on the eGolf Tour.
“I got off to a bad start last year,” Sucher said earlier this year. “Once I got comfortable, I started making some cuts and was able to play decent golf. It was a good experience and I think I’m a better player for it.”
The most flawless round on day two was arguably carded by Griffin, who notched seven birdies and 11 pars for a bogey-free 65 that took him to 11-under on the week. Through 36 holes of play, the former Virginia Commonwealth University standout has just one bogey to his name, coming at the par-4 18th during the opening round.
After posting four top-10s in 2011 – his first year on the eGolf Tour – Griffin has recorded just two in 2012, but has nearly turned each into his first tour title.
At the Irish Creek Classic in March, the former Ram pared his final five holes to polish off a final-round 67 that left him tied for fourth, four shots shy of winner David May. The following month, at the Forest Oaks Classic, Griffin came from nowhere to post eight birdies and a final-round 64 that left him in a sudden death playoff with tour stalwart Clint Jensen, who birdied the par-5 18th to force the playoff, then birdied it again to win on the second extra hole.
Griffin, who made two PGA TOUR starts in 2011 (Wells Fargo Championship, Greenbrier Classic) is currently 28th on the eGolf Tour money list with $24,986 in earnings.
Following a 7-under 65 that gave him the day one lead, Epperson played solid golf on Thursday, posting seven birdies against three bogeys on his way to a 4-under 68. His up-and-down round included a nine-hole stretch from Nos. 9 through 17 that featured five birdies, three bogeys and a par at the par-3 16th.
During a breakthrough 2012 campaign on the eGolf Tour, Epperson has notched 11 top-10 finishes, a staggering five top-4 finishes, and entered the week at Star Fort with six consecutive top-10s on his resume. His $71,973 in earnings have him at No. 3 on the tour’s money list – the highest ranking of any player without a win.
Final-round play in The Championship at Star Fort will begin at 8:00 AM on Friday morning. The tournament is open to the public and free of charge.