CHARLOTTE — One of these days, Harold William Varner IV’s father will have some unusual questions to answer. For one, why does their house have a Shoe Room? It’s ostensibly a home office, with a computer and printer on a desk at its center.
In considering LIV Golf’s polarizing offer, Harold Varner III had seen too much to lie
“That’s Saudi. I don’t give a f—,” Harold William Varner III says as his 16-month-old son, whom he and his wife Amanda call Liam, does pre-bedtime laps around the desk. Thirteen months ago, Varner drained a 92-foot eagle putt from the fringe of the 18th green to win the PIF Saudi International tournament, a marquee event on the Asian Tour and the biggest of Varner’s two professional wins. “I’m not really into trophies.”
He is, though, very much into premium sneakers. At least 800 pairs, most of them Air Jordans, fill the clear display containers lining the walls. Others are in unopened boxes or in the room’s crawl space. The Jordan Brand sponsors Varner and keeps sending shipments, he says, months after he announced he was leaving the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf, the controversial renegade tour financed by the Saudi Arabian government.
Perhaps Liam will ask about that someday, too. Everyone else has, and his father’s answers have been notable for their unvarnished honesty: Yes, he did it for the money.
“I play golf so I can change the direction of my family’s life,” says Varner, 32. “And that’s it. No other reason.”
When he joined LIV in August, he says, the tour’s public relations apparatus sent Varner the same talking points it sent other players. He ignored them. Instead, he posted on Instagram that it was “simply too good of a financial breakthrough,” a chance for a Black man from rural North Carolina to acquire generational wealth. In other words, Harold III made a decision that factored in the experiences of Harold I and Harold II, and saw a one-time opportunity to change the math for Harold IV, a possible Harold V and beyond.
So what about LIV chief executive Greg Norman’s declaration that players’ motivation to defect from the PGA Tour expand beyond greed? That golf can be an instrument of global diplomacy and that LIV players wish to grow the game?
“They’re full of s—; they’re growing their pockets,” Varner says. “I tell them all the time, all of them: You didn’t come here to f—ing grow the f—ing game.”
It may not take long for Liam to realize his father curses like a sailor and thinks like an economist, a beer-swilling, snowboarding, hydrant-shaped fusion of Kenny Powers and John Maynard Keynes. Varner has big ideas and a youth-focused foundation to help him achieve his egalitarian dreams. But he knows even good deeds rarely happen without the almighty dollar.
He therefore insists this week at Augusta isn’t about winning a green jacket or having the Varner name engraved on the Masters trophy. It’s a shot at a purse worth at least $15 million, and considering the tournament’s strict qualifying criteria and that LIV players don’t receive points in the Official World Golf Ranking, this could be the last time Varner — invited this year because he finished last year ranked in the top 50 — ever tees it up there.
Still, won’t it be awkward? This is the first time LIV players and PGA Tour loyalists will share a locker room, so how does golf’s most prim-and-proper event not devolve into a battle royale?
“These f—ers aren’t mad,” Varner says, spitting dip juice into a water bottle with the Augusta National logo. “They’re just mad that you’re f—ing with their money. I think some people are jealous, and that’s just the way it is.”
When you grow up poor, money isn’t associated with possessions or goals. It’s measured in time. Fifty dollars might last you a day; longer if you’re careful. A couple hundred could buy you a week. When it’s gone, or if there’s an unexpected expense, the clock resets and the anxiety returns.
The electricity used to go off in the Varner house, and two years in a row, Harold’s mother cried because Christmas fell too far after payday. Patricia Varner could make a Sunday pot of pork and beans last till Wednesday, and lunch for Harold II was sometimes a mayonnaise and sugar sandwich. Like a majority of Americans, the Varners lived paycheck to paycheck.
“It never scared me,” Harold III says now. “My dad just always said we’re going to be fine.”
Harold II had grown up eating lunches of saltines and cheese, skipping school to work at his father’s salvage business in Akron. Harold I was born in Alabama, and in the late 1940s worked on a White family’s farm. He would check the time by looking at a clock through a picture window, and one day the family’s daughter walked in as he was looking. The family called the police, and Harold I was jailed for 30 days, accused of being a peeping Tom.
“Soon as he hit ground, he left,” Harold II says. “Daddy didn’t want to be part of Alabama no more.”
To those first Harold Varners, a junkyard in Ohio was prosperity. Food was scarce but not absent, and Harold I sold enough copper wire that he paid his son $75 a week. They even took occasional trips to visit relatives in Alabama. In the early 1960s, father and son took the train, and Harold II said he needed to use the restroom. He ran into the one reserved for Whites and got pulled out as he washed his hands.
“Daddy taught me a lesson on the way down, man,” Harold II says. “He told me he better never catch me in there again.”
So Harold II had limited sympathy when his son begged for new clothes or shoes. Harold III used to bike to the nearest golf course, where the other boys had FootJoys or Nike Air Zooms. The rich kids at school wore Jordans. The Varners could afford none of that, so they bought him a pair of Steve & Barry’s Stephon Marburys — for $14.98 — that should last at least six months. They had no midsole support, though, and his arches fell. Now his parents had to pay for orthotics and visits to the podiatrist.
He kept showing up at the course, noticing that other players didn’t play with hand-me-down equipment and mismatched clubs.
“Harold just couldn’t have everything he wanted,” Harold II says. “I kept him in the best schools, and he thought he was one of the have-nots.”
During casual rounds, Harold III was sometimes paired with men, most of them White, some who owned businesses. They marveled at his determination and ability, and in exchange they shared the secret of how America works: No dream is attainable without capital. Lots of it.
Harold III remembered this, kept their phone numbers, had no problem asking them for an investment in a young Black golfer. One year his parents didn’t have the $80 fee to enter the North Carolina Junior Boys Championship 100 miles north. So he called Jason Cox, who worked at the Carolinas Golf Association.
“This kid’s special. He just needs some help,” Cox told his colleagues. They waived the fee, and Harold III spent the weekend in Cox’s spare bedroom.
When he turned pro later, that’s how he still lived: free housing, economy flights, free food. He lived with his parents, kept his 2013 Honda CR-V, never checked his bank account to see if he could afford better. He just assumed he couldn’t. That’s the reality for the majority of golfers in the sport’s minor leagues, firing at flags from the patchy fairways of Wichita and Tunica, Miss., and Bogota, hoping for that one big win and life-changing prize money.
He finished second at the 2015 Panama Championship and earned $68,000 — the most money he had ever seen. Taxes cut that in half, though, and he paid his caddie 8 percent plus a bonus. His travel expenses to Central America cleaved off another couple thousand, and when everything was settled, he says he pocketed less than $25,000. Still, that would buy a few months, even if he missed the next few cuts and earned nothing.
He earned his PGA Tour card in 2016, and during Tiger Woods’s recovery from back surgery, Harold III was the only Black player on tour. A mediocre 2017 nearly got him sent back to the Web.com Tour, but he retained his card and, in 2018, attended a presentation for a new tour concept underwritten by Saudi Arabia. He signed with the Jordan Brand and sometimes teed it up with His Airness himself, adding Jordan to a growing stable of mentors and advisers.
He and Amanda married in 2020, and two hours after Liam as born in October 2021, Harold III left for a tournament in Las Vegas. “If you don’t play, ” he says, “you just concede your card, basically. You’ve got to do it.”
The arch in his right foot goes numb sometimes, and the pain sometimes requires the use of crutches and that damn walking boot. He says he was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve condition that requires daily anti-inflammatory medication. It’s just a matter of time, he says, before he can no longer play. With a young family, he began making his peace with a future in sales. Maybe East Carolina, where he earned a marketing degree, would hire him for a job in the athletic department.
But then, unexpectedly, he started getting better. He had six top-15 finishes in 2021, then last year Tommy Fleetwood and Bubba Watson watched as his putt at the Saudi International started right, faded left, then curled into the cup for a walk-off win and a massive payday.
“Man, I won $100,000!” he says he told Watson afterward.
“No, dude,” Watson said, “you made a million dollars.”
Almost immediately, Varner thought of how much time that bought: Two years? Longer?
“If it ends tomorrow,” he says, “it doesn’t end tomorrow.”
Last spring, Dustin Johnson signed with LIV for a reported $125 million signing bonus. Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau followed, each for unprecedented sums totaling nearly a half-billion dollars. Harold III curated the opinions of business leaders, an executive with RBC, even Jordan. He turned down LIV and pledged fealty to the PGA Tour.
Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka defected next. Tiger Woods said players had “turned their back” on the tour that gave them a chance to be millionaires, and 11 LIV golfers filed an antitrust suit in federal court. Varner says the locker room chatter at last year’s Wyndham Championship was dominated by talk of the former colleagues who “made a deal with the devil.”
With his foot problems worsening, Varner wondered how much money could buy a decade of financial security. Or a lifetime. Or forever.
“I’m always going to be good because I can go work in a f—ing steel fab place and figure it out,” Varner says. “But, like, with a kid, I can’t guarantee what I was making at the time, if I died the next day, Amanda would be good forever. And isn’t that why we work? I mean, I don’t work to say I love what I do. That’s bulls—. That’s always been bulls— to me. You want your kid to have a f—ing chance.”
Last summer, LIV’s managing director, Majed Al Sorour, made a new offer. This time Varner said yes. Maybe he wouldn’t have, he says, if not for Liam. So how much money secures comfort for generations? The $15 million signing bonus that has been reported? On a recent afternoon, Varner looks over and smiles.
He won’t say how much LIV gave him. Just that one day he looked at his bank account and saw that an eight-figure sum had been paid by direct deposit.
“If my parents were well-off, yeah, I’ll go play for championships and s—,” he says. “The Tour has made it where they say it’s not about the money. I don’t care what anyone says. It’s about the damn money.”
A few years ago, when Harold III started making a little money, he bought The Land: Sixteen acres in rural Gastonia, behind a row of pines that conceals a concrete business and a trash dump. He had a small house built for his parents, a pond stocked with bream and frequented by geese, a big garage down a long gated driveway that’s his grown-up playhouse and opens to his driving range.
At least at first, Harold II wasn’t wild about moving to The Land. A son providing for his parents generates particularly odd feelings, no matter how well-meaning or well-off he is. The new house was fine, the property quiet and sprawling, but what was wrong with his home up the road and to the left? He had paid for it with his own money three decades ago, earned and saved from his commissions from Arnold Palmer Cadillac.
In 1993, Harold II was burned out and broke. He sold cars at the Oldsmobile dealership in Akron, but most of his earnings were tied up in helping his aging parents and the $250 a week he paid in child support for his older two children. One day he put in for four weeks’ vacation and told Patricia he was going to North Carolina and Alabama — alone.
Eventually he met with a manager at the Oldsmobile dealership in Charlotte, and the manager told Harold II to get out on the floor. He made $5,500 in commissions that first week; $3,500 the week after that.
“You know how you be scared, man, they ain’t going to give me all that money,” he says now, at age 72. “They’re going to keep some for themselves, and, heck, I never did get to Alabama.”
Usually there was even a few extra dollars available for Harold II’s new hobby. He brought his son with him to the golf course, and every summer Harold II gave Gastonia Municipal Golf Course $100 — all you can play from June to September.
Harold III may not care about trophies, but his daddy does. His little three-bedroom on the corner was a token of his sacrifices and gambles; the distance he had traveled from duct-taped sneakers in Akron to penny loafers in Charlotte. It’s where he honed his golf game to become a 6 handicap. It was something that belonged to him.
“I’m all right where I am,” Harold II says he told his son. “Go ahead and live your life. Your daddy done made it this far. Build your world. You know what I mean? Build it better than mine.”
Varner appealed to his mother, though, and Patricia overruled Harold II, and the couple moved.
Harold II still owns the old house, though. He likes knowing it’s still there. That he and Patricia could move back, if it came to it. And that something he earned, even amid all this time and all these changes, is still his.
Harold III is behind the wheel of a golf cart, going from the 18th green back to the 18th tee box. Two young golfers, Tyler Jones and Shlock Jain, are in a sudden-death playoff for the HV3 Invitational championship. After one playoff hole, they’re still tied.
Players’ parents approach and ask for photos. Many provide opinions on Harold III’s decision to join LIV. With the PGA Tour having indefinitely suspended LIV players, the OWGR awarding them no ranking points and Varner having yet to qualify for the U.S. Open or British Open, it’s possible this week will be the last time he plays in a major championship.
He says Jordan taught him to stay out such unwinnable muck, and if he idolizes Jordan for his fortune and fame, the NBA legend’s mystique might be what he admires most. Jordan keeps his social circle tight, Harold III says, and his true feelings to himself.
“That’s what I try to tell the LIV guys: You only make it worse if you keep talking,” he says.
It hasn’t earned him many friends on the new tour, he admits, but he claims that’s no more important to him than jackets or trophies.
“If you said I can’t play in the majors,” he says, “I’d be fine. I’ve accepted that. I was cool with it. But some of these motherf—ers, they want their cake and eat it too, I guess. Like, dude, you knew it was going to be bad. Like going against the f—ing U.S. government: Good luck, man.”
Last spring, when the predominant golf story was LIV and who’s-going vs. who’s-staying, Harold III played in his first Masters. He finished in a tie for 23rd and pocketed $138,250. What he remembers more is that Liam wore a little caddie uniform with VARNER on it during the par-3 event and that Harold II got to stroll the grounds of Augusta National, 47 years after Lee Elder became the first Black player allowed at The Masters.
Harold II remembers the greenery and the $2 barbecue sandwiches — and one other thing.
“I be looking at that bathroom,” he says, “and it makes me get in the spiritual thought. Way back then, I couldn’t even go in the bathroom, and Augusta — me — me — they treated me like I was royalty.”
On this day at the HV3 tournament, Harold II’s son smiles, shakes hands, gives advice. Harold III is a symbol here, and not only for the players whose parents can easily afford the $125 registration. Cox, who once waived an $80 entry fee for a promising young golfer, now runs the HV3 Foundation. He says 162 golfers signed up for the tournament; 46 received financial assistance, including some whose fees were waived and who’ll get reimbursement for travel expenses. Golf still being the most aristocratic of American sports, the foundation keeps those players’ identities secret; Cox says even some players receiving aid don’t know it.
Harold III says his naked pursuit of cash isn’t just about expanding his bank accounts. It’s a capitalist’s approach to making golf a bit more socialist: Accumulate enough money, and any kid can play free, regardless of race or class. He says the foundation has a war chest of about $2 million; if he builds that number to $20 million, he can construct a golf course that would be affordable and accessible to everyone.
That, he says, is how you buy forever.
“My job is to make people have the opportunity to do the things they want to do in life,” he says. “In 10 years, you ain’t going to f—ing know who won this f—ing tournament. I can’t tell you who won Augusta last year. So you know what they’re going to remember? They’re going to remember how you helped someone; how you made someone feel.”
He watches as Jain misses his putt and Jones taps in to win the championship. He steps forward to congratulate both players, and others gather. He stands and poses and answers their questions until there are no more.
“Everyone says money doesn’t make you happy. It doesn’t,” he says. “It hasn’t made me happy. It’s made me capable.”
It’s long past Liam’s bedtime, but he would rather play than sleep, and it’s hard for Varner to tell his son no. “You want some, little thing?” he says, scooping up the boy and roughhousing with him. “You want some? Come get some.”
When you grow up poor, you want to give your children the things you didn’t have: the fun, the experiences, the stuff. Just in the past few months, Liam has been to Kiawah Island and a ski resort in Colorado. His white coverall from Augusta National is framed and mounted in the playroom on the first floor of the family’s five-bedroom, $3 million house overlooking the 13th hole at a country club.
It all creates a parenting conundrum: How do you instill ambition without deprivation? Teach the lessons that made you, only without the trauma? Or, put slightly differently …
“How do you teach him to understand, like, all the s— we have, that’s not normal?” Harold III asks Amanda, standing near the doorway of the Shoe Room. “If he never appreciates it, he’s just another f—ing rich kid.”
Harold III is in favor of his son working someday, but with his vast contacts in business and sports, he also plans to connect Liam with power brokers and executives — mentors that could set up Liam, and a possible Harold William Varner V, to complete an unimaginable century-long transformation.
“Liam,” Harold II says, “will be the golden child.”
That’s the conclusion of Harold III’s vision, the details of which he largely keeps to himself. It’s what Jordan would do. Just as he might insist that The Masters, held at a course where Harold I wouldn’t have been allowed, is just another tournament. Just last week, he drove from Charlotte to Augusta to play two practice rounds. He didn’t do that with LIV’s tournament in Orlando in mind.
On this night, he chases his son around the room, lets him play with a weighted golf club, watches as Liam climbs on an unopened case of Jordans.
Finally it’s bedtime, and
Harold III is feeling anxious, though not because the late evening has disrupted Liam’s routine. He hasn’t said much about this, having kept details of his plans tight, but he still has to pack a bag, check the weather, try to sleep. If all goes right, he wants to hit the road early, probably around 6, and drive down to Augusta.