After getting supportive messages from Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan the night before, Harold Varner III could not have had a better start to the final round of the PGA Championship.
The 28-year-old journeyman pro birdied the first hole at Bethpage Black playing in the final pairing to draw within five strokes of eventual champion Brooks Koepka, who bogeyed the hole.
It was the best thing to happen to Varner on Sunday.
The 174th-ranked player in the world shot an 11-over-par 81 and went from sole possession of second place to finishing tied for 36th with a 6-over score.
It marked the first time a player in the last pairing on the final day shot in the 80s.
“Man, it’s just rough. It was hard. It was really hard,” said Varner, whose only win was in the 2017 Australian PGA championship. “I just didn’t play well enough. It was a great experience. I’m going to get a lot better. It’s just a hard golf course. I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s good.”
Varner finished with one birdie, three double bogeys, six bogeys and eight pars.
His first double came at the par-3 No. 2. He missed the green, chipped to 11 feet and three-putted.
The worst hole was the par-5, 524-yard No. 4. His 324-yard tee shot landed in stalk-like grass. His second went sideways into the woods, and the ball was lost. Even Koepka came to help, but to no avail.
“I had about 30 seconds left,” Varner said of the search. “I didn’t think we were going to find it anyways. I didn’t really look for my golf ball. I thought I was screwed.”
Varner had to return to the native area and eventually took a 7.
Nothing good happened after that and it seemed Varner just tried to play fast the rest of the way on a very windy, difficult day.
“That was crazy,” he said. “But it happens. I just — mine happened on the last day. I’m going to get a lot better. It was just really hard. I don’t know what else to say.”
Varner said his opening rounds of 71, 67 and 67 convinced him he is good enough to compete with the best on the PGA Tour. It just didn’t happen on Sunday, and was ticked off, although he never ducked a question.
“I was right there. Gosh, it was a lot of fun, man. It was something I’ve never felt before. So it was pretty cool,” he said.
Varner didn’t disclose exactly what Woods said to him other than to keep it simple. The rest was smack talk between golfers. Coincidentally, fans on Saturday were calling Varner, who also is African American, “Tiger.” Woods didn’t make the cut.
What really bothered Varner and was completely out of his — and Koepka’s control — were some fans yelling for Koepka to choke after Dustin Johnson drew close.
“I have a few choice words for that,” said Varner, whose week began with plans to play a practice round with Woods on the eve of the tournament until Woods called in sick. “I thought it was pretty weird how they were telling Brooks to choke. That’s not my cup of tea. I was pulling for him after that.”