Harold Varner III has a history in the New York metropolitan area.
The 31-year-old from North Carolina has come close to winning here twice — in the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black and at the Northern Trust later that year at Liberty National.
Here he is again.
Varner shot a 5-under 66 in Thursday’s opening round of the Northern Trust, the first leg of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs back at Liberty National, and stands just three shots behind leaders Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas entering Friday’s second round.
This comes less than a week after Varner, by his own admission, realized he needed an attitude adjustment after a mini-meltdown during the third round of the Wyndham Championship.
“The biggest thing for me was last week I just had a terrible attitude,’’ Varner said after his round Thursday. “Having a bad attitude probably makes me more mad than playing bad golf. That’s the only thing you control. You don’t really control what you’re going to shoot or where your golf ball is going to end up, but you control how you approach each shot.’’
Varner finished tied for 57th at the Wyndham, but it was his approach shot that sailed over the green on the 11th hole in the third round that set him off.
“I’m still pissed about it actually,’’ he said. “I was playing pretty well … but I’m glad it happened there rather than here.’’
Varner has had his share of drama in the New York area with the tease at the 2019 Northern Trust and the devastation from the 2019 PGA at Bethpage, where he shot a final-round 81 while playing in the final pairing with eventual winner Brooks Koepka.
The day after that PGA, Varner was on the phone with Michael Jordan, who’s become a mentor of his through his friend Fred Whitfield, the COO of the Jordan-owned Charlotte Hornets.
“When I shot 81 at the PGA, I picked [Jordan’s] brain and told him I was super-nervous and asked what he did in those situations, like, ‘What did you think about?’ ’’ Varner said. “We went through the round and he told me I needed to stay in the present and focus on what’s happening right now, because that’s all you can control. You hear that growing up, but doing it is a different story — especially in that situation.’’
Varner conceded that he got ahead of himself on that Sunday as he tried to chase down Koepka.
“Hell yeah, I thought I was going to win that thing,’’ Varner said. “I birdied the first hole and Brooks bogeyed and I was like, ‘[Heck], I’m going to win this thing.’ I just got ahead of myself.’’
As difficult as it was on that day, Varner called it “the greatest experience of my life,’’ adding, “I learned a lot. I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.’’
That experience at the PGA Championship showed Varner “that I’m capable of winning a golf tournament.’’
Varner said he and Jordan play a lot of golf together and, while Varner said he’d been giving Jordan 10 shots a round, he said, “Right now he’s been joking with me since I haven’t won on Tour that I give him only eight. So, I need to take care of business.’’
Varner is playing in his 165th career PGA Tour event and is still searching for his first victory. Jordan clearly is using that as fuel to motivate his friend to break through.
Varner also has a good relationship with Tiger Woods, whom he sought out a few years ago.
“I was talking smack to him and I wanted to play golf with him, I wanted to learn from him, best player to ever live,’’ Varner said. “I saw him in a locker room a couple years ago and said, ‘Hey man, when are we going to play?’ He was like, ‘Let’s play at TPC.’ I said, ‘All right, that’s cool.’
“So, we played together at TPC Sawgrass a couple years ago and every chance I can I try to play with him so I can pick his brain.’’
To Varner’s surprise, Woods’ advice was almost exactly the same as Jordan’s.
“I remember asking, ‘Man, what does it take to win? I want to win,’ and he was like, ‘Don’t worry about it; my journey and your journey are totally different,’ ’’ Varner recalled.
Asked if he talks to his friends on the PGA Tour about what it’s like to break through and win that first tournament, Varner said, “No, not at all. This is my journey. When I die, my name will be on my tombstone, no one else’s.’’