These days, the course is called Catawba Creek. But back when a 9-year-old Harold Varner III started playing there, it was known as Gastonia (N.C.) Municipal.
His father, who was a car salesman, and his mother, a nursing assistant, managed to come up with $100 so their gifted and gregarious son could play golf as many times as he wanted that summer. And the summer after that, and the summer after that.
When he eventually got a job at Gaston Country Club doing everything from picking the range to maintenance work, Varner had playing privileges there. He also came under the transformative guidance of Bruce Sudderth, a highly regarded teacher who is a member of the Carolinas PGA Hall of Fame.
Varner still sees some of those “old men” he met as a precocious kid and played with – and sometimes beat in the weekly dogfight — at Catawba Creek. And he fondly remembers the Par Busters, a group of predominately African-American golfers that his dad belonged to who would keep a youngster like him in check.
“It takes a village to raise a kid and Gastonia’s obviously my village,” Varner says of the satellite city of 75,000 just outside Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Obviously, the members at Gaston Country Club, the old men at Gaston Municipal, and then the Par Busters — they basically raised a little kid and turned him into a man.”
Varner knows the life lessons learned at those clubs and from those men were just as important as the ones he got on the practice range from Sudderth. That’s one of the reasons he wanted to get involved in Youth on Course, which provides affordable access to golf for kids aged 6-18.
The organization is the “closest thing to my journey,” Varner explains.
Kids enrolled in the Youth on Course program can walk and play 18 holes for $5 or less at more than 1,400 courses across the United States and Canada. The organization also offers caddie and internship programs, and it has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships.
“I think it’s going to do a lot,” Varner says. “I think it’s going to do exactly what I’ve wanted every other organization to do — give a kid a chance to play golf. …
“They’re going to learn a lot from the people that they encounter, how to talk to a human, how to treat people and then get better at golf.”
But Varner has done more than lend his name to the non-profit as an ambassador. His own HV3 Foundation is a substantial supporter of the Youth on Course program and its facilities affiliated with the Carolinas Golf Association.
Among the more than 50 courses involved are Forest Oaks Country Club, which was once the home of the Wyndham Championship; Pine Needles Lodge & Resort, which hosts its fourth U.S. Women’s Open next June and the Nos. 1, 3 and 5 courses at Pinehurst Country Club.
Adam Heieck, who is the CEO of Youth on Course, sees Varner as the perfect fit as the organization’s first ambassador.
“Harold has been a vocal champion of our organization for years, not to mention his significant financial contributions which have made a huge difference for young golfers in the Carolinas,” he said when the partnership was announced earlier this year.
So, what is the best lesson the 31-year-old learned from the people in his village when he was a teenager?
“There’s a lot of them,” said Varner, who became a father last weekend when Harold William Varner IV, otherwise known as Liam, was born. “Yes sir, no sir, and thank you and please go a long way. We don’t do that now. Like, it’s unheard of. It’s like uncommon.
“Like when you hear it — for example (Hideki) Matsuyama’s caddie basically gave respect to the golf course (by bowing on the 18th green at Augusta National after the Masters), and we’re like in awe of it. When did respect become like a shocking thing?”
While golf is obviously a focus with the AJGA’s HV3 Foundation All-Stars and the other tournaments it runs for kids, Varner’s foundation is dedicated to promoting affordable access to all sports, particularly for young people in underserved communities.
“I’m super excited just give a kid a chance to obviously play golf,” he says. “But the biggest thing for us is providing access through sports in general and that’s where we’re getting closer to.”
Paying it forward through organizations like Youth on Course is the goal.
“I just want to do great things for the people that have done great things for my life,” he says. “I don’t think it’s hard to do. So, you can put a face if you have to put a face on it. I’ll put my face in it because I like to do things and move in silence and just help cause that’s what you’re supposed to do.
“You don’t need recognition to help.”