Harold Varner III has a plan to grow golf and he wants you to hear it
Me, the kid who sometimes had no lights … I’M the one who can continue to help young people find a path to success? Not even a question. I’m in.
Illustration by GOLFTV
I’m not supposed to be writing articles for Golf Digest.
I’m not supposed to have made my way to the PGA TOUR.
I’m not supposed to be here, you know? For so many reasons, I’m just not.
But the reality is, I am. It’s the culmination of luck and a heck of a lot of work ... and over the past few years, I’ve realized it’s given me a bigger purpose. It’s not about trying to win on the PGA TOUR, though that day is coming. It’s about something bigger than that.
It’s about the collective WE.
Look, I’m always gonna keep it real with you. I learned that from my parents at an early age, to always be true to who I am, even if there’s pressure to act a certain way or say certain things to fit into a social construct.
That isn’t me. If you want the same old story, there’s a little X mark in the top corner of your screen that you can click. But if we’re REALLY talking about growing the game — if we REALLY want to change the narrative around access to golf — you should settle in and keep reading.
I’ve written about it before: We’re not growing the game enough for Black kids. I realize that I’m in a position to help the Black community because of who I am and what I look like — and I’m going to do everything in my power to be that guy to bring more of us into the game. But in that same breath, I want to acknowledge that we’re also not growing the game enough for Hispanics, Whites and Asians alike. Everyone deserves an opportunity to play golf, and dollar signs should never be a hindrance to putting a tee in the ground.
Jared C. Tilton
I know that, because my parents laid it all on the line for me, giving me the chance to do something significant with my life. When I was 9 years old, my mom and dad dipped into their bank account and wrote a check for $100 to Gastonia Municipal Golf Course, our local course in North Carolina. That money allowed me to play golf all summer long, as many times as I wanted. It was legit. I met some of the greatest friends from all backgrounds — rich and poor, Black and White — who I’m still boys with today. For the next few years of my life, I spent every summer on that $100 program, learning how to fine-tune my swing, trash talk and whatnot. I even remember playing some 30-year-old guys and beating them when I was only 12. Honestly, it was the greatest way for me to enter the game, because I was allowed to play with people of all ages, ethnicities and social statuses.
I can’t say for certain — and I didn’t know it at the time — but shelling out that 100 bucks couldn’t have been an easy decision for my parents. I mean, in one sense, I’m sure it was: My parents would do anything for me and my younger sister to make us happy. And they knew that spending my summers learning to compete on a golf course was something that I wanted to do. But that $100 had ripple effects, you know?
I’ve never really thought much of it, but there’d be times when I’d come home at dusk after riding my bike all around town, run into my room, flip on the light switch … and nothing would happen. I’d try again. Click, click. No lights. As a kid, these things roll off your back like it’s no biggie. I was probably just like, Oh, well, time to go outside and shoot some hoops under the streetlight. It didn’t affect me. Now, as an adult, I can look back and see that, dang, my parents would put my passion ahead of paying an electric bill. Ahead of their wellbeing. Sometimes they had to pay their bills late just to make sure I had the money to eat lunch at school.
I was six years old when my parents picked up their lives and moved me and my sister to Gastonia. Up until then, we had lived in Akron, Ohio, but better job prospects and a lower cost of living attracted my mom and dad to the South. To this day, my mom still works as a nursing assistant. My dad has been a car salesman for over 40 years. There’s a reason why you’ve probably heard me talking about going home and cutting my parents’ lawn after a PGA TOUR event. See, that 900-square-foot home wasn’t much, but it was home, you know? It was the product of my parents’ hard work. No matter how many tournaments I’ll play in, I’ll never — never — lose sight of how I got to where I am today.
I owe everything I have to my mom and dad. They don’t care about how I finish in a tournament. Nah. I’ll come home, sit down at our kitchen table, and they’ll ask me how my wife, Amanda, and I have been doing. And it’s funny — I’m gonna be a dad soon, too. Amanda is expecting in October, and I’ve been thinking a lot about my role as a parent — about how I want to mimic my parents and instill the values of humility and kindness in my kid (we’ll be announcing whether Baby Varner will be rockin’ pink or blue Jordans soon). Those values were nurtured out there in the blazing summer heat at Gastonia Municipal Golf Course, where I learned what it meant to be a golfer. Through hard work, my game developed to a point where I could earn a scholarship to East Carolina and fight my way from mini tours to the Big Time.
Without having access to golf from an early age, these Jordans you see me rocking? These words you’re reading right now?
None of it would be possible.
I’ve thought a long time about how to help other kids have the same opportunities I had. I’ve started the HV3 Foundation which funds an entry-fee assistance program with the Carolina Golf Association. Each year, we host a number of golf tournaments for kids in North Carolina in which a certain percentage of kids come in through the program, and we’re hoping to expand on that.
But I want to do more. So, today, I’m announcing that I’ve decided to partner with an organization called Youth on Course in order to accelerate this movement into the game. Go ahead and show them some love. The basic premise of the organization is to help young people of all ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses through the prism of golf. Youth on Course allows kids to have a safe space to play, gain a scholarship for college and access opportunities through connections made on the course. The main tenant of their mission is a replica of mine: to provide kids affordable access to the game.
The future of golf is with this program. Let me say that again: the future of golf is with this program.
Youth on Course has partnered with over 1,400 golf courses across the U.S. and Canada to allow kids to play for only $5. Five dollars! Think about that. They’ve subsidized over 1 million rounds of golf for their growing membership, which has created an impressive network of young stars in their caddie program and recipients of paid internships — something that is incredibly important since half of the program’s 100,000 members are over the age of 14.
Youth on Course works as an extension of other programs that have introduced kids to the game such as the First Tee (which I’ve been proud to work with). These kids come to Youth on Course armed with the skills to succeed on the course and are also aided in the next step in their journey to be competitive off of it. Over 260 high school students have received more than $2 million in scholarships through the program, and I’m excited to say that number is growing. By providing affordable access, they’re not just setting up kids to succeed on the course. This is about giving kids an opportunity in life.
Sounds a lot like my childhood at Gastonia Municipal Golf Course, doesn’t it? See, I want to take that kid whose parents can’t pay their electric bill, and the kid who’s grown up in a fancy neighborhood and bring them together on the golf course. Because I’ve lived it, man. Good things can happen. It ain’t corny. It ain’t cheesy. It’s real life.
I’m happy to say that we’ve made some inroads in North Carolina so far. But, to me, that’s just the beginning. I feel like Youth on Course is going to allow me to change the country. I know some of y’all may be shaking your head and rolling your eyes at that, like, This guy thinks he’s going to change the country? Harold’s out of his dang mind. Listen, if trying to improve kids’ lives across the world makes me crazy, then I’m certifiable, man.
But if I’m being honest, I know that I can’t do it alone. I’m going to need your help getting the word out.
Like I said earlier, I believe that I’m here for a reason bigger than myself. It’s about the collective WE. We’re going to bring more kids into the game through Youth on Course, and I encourage everyone to explore ways they can get involved. With the structure of an international program, more and more kids will be set up for something greater than professional golf. We’re already seeing those who participated in the program graduate from college and start successful careers across a number of different industries. And it’s like, Dang, me, the kid who sometimes had no lights … I’M the one who can continue to help young people find a path to success?
Not even a question. I’m in.
It’s time to go to work. If you want to chat about the program and what we’re all about, hit me up on Twitter. I’ll do my best to reply to each one of y’all.
Much love, and always remember:
#WeHere. For each other.
The price of a round of golf shouldn’t be a barrier for a young person who wants to play – that’s where Youth on Course comes in. Youth on Course provides its 100,000+ members with access to play over 1,400 golf courses for $5 or less, giving them opportunities to learn lessons that can be taught in a way only a golf course can. If you want to learn more about Youth on Course, please visit this link.