Harold Varner III’s long journey to Sunday’s final group at PGA Championship

Harold Varner III is 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds soaking wet. But he isn’t afraid of Brooks Koepka, who stands 6 feet and 186 pounds. In fact, Varner is inspired by Koepka and the way the defending PGA champion is taking apart Bethpage Black.

“The first thing that comes to mind is, I think it’s great for golf,” Varner was saying Saturday. “If you don’t go to sleep and think, ‘This makes me want to work harder [to] be that good,’ then I don’t know why you’re playing. You can’t sit there and just weep and be like, ‘He’s so much better.’ I think that’s going to push you. It almost pisses me off. That’s what I think.”

Varner, 28, will get his chance to go toe-to-toe with Koepka when they are paired in the final group for Sunday’s final round of the 101st PGA Championship. Varner was first to post a score of 5-under par for the tournament after his 3-under-par 67 during Saturday’s third round. He is one of four players tied for second, seven strokes behind Koepka, who is at 12-under.

Varner, who began his career on the Web.com tour before getting his Tour card in 2016, is playing in just his fifth major and second PGA Championship. The only previous cut he made in a major came at the 2016 Open Championship, when he finished tied for 66th. Now he gets to be part of the final group at Bethpage Black against Koepka.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Varner said. “It’s going to be a great day no matter what happens. This is what you practice for, and obviously I’m super excited. I just need to go home and eat and do it again. I’m super excited for the opportunity.”

Koepka appears headed toward winning his fourth major in the last eight he has played after shooting a “catch-me-if-you-can” even-par 70 on Saturday, completing a 54-hole performance that left Varner in awe. “He’s pretty focused unlike myself,” Varner said. “He’s really good at golf.”

Varner isn’t thinking so much about catching Koepka as he is about putting a solid final round together while playing in the final group of a major. There are certain steps in a career that validate progress. This is one of them.

“My goal is to hit the fairway on No. 1 and start from there. Pretty simple,” Varner said. “Life is hard. This is easy. Right now I want to think about playing solid golf. That’s what I’m doing. I think when I do that everything takes care of itself.”

Varner, who was introduced to golf by his father Harold Varner Jr., came to Bethpage Black hoping to play a practice round on Wednesday with his idol Tiger Woods. But Woods was a no-show, preferring to rest that day, and Varner spent the time on his own preparing for the tournament. It proved beneficial.

He finished with four straight birdies to complete his second-round 67 on Friday, and posted a bogey-free 3-under on Saturday. Varner essentially got in the final group when he made a 6-foot putt at the 18th hole.

“It took me three hours to play nine holes by myself,” Varner said of his practice session at the Black. “That type of preparation just makes it easy to relax. I know as soon as I get up [to a green] I’ve hit 30 putts to each pin.”

A native of the Charlotte area, Varner is one of the few African-Americans in professional golf, and has heard the Bethpage crowd yell “Tiger Woods” more often than necessary. But he takes it in stride.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I like it. Some of the stuff they say cracks me up. ‘Tiger, Tiger.’ That one always gets me.”

A good showing on Sunday and Varner will make a name for himself.

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