Loss of Harold Varner III to LIV Golf runs deeper than a divot for PGA Tour

One of the Tour's most popular players does not sugarcoat his reasoning for making the controversial move to the Saudi-backed startup — money, not majors

LIV Golf Invitational Boston 2022
Harold Varner III tees off during the final round of the LIV Golf Invitational Boston on Sept. 4, 2022.

PINEHURST, N.C. — Few of us who watch professional sports during our leisure time consider it a business until a contract holdout or labor dispute arises. Or money trumps competition. A turbulent summer of golf has proven that yet again.

Sports are indeed a business folks, as are most "jobs."  

Why did Joe Namath sign with the upstart American Football League in the mid-1960s? Well, for more money, of course. Not only more cash, but lots more moola. It certainly wasn’t for the better competition, because at the time the AFL product was inferior to the NFL.

So it was understandable when golfers who left the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf and explained away their decisions based on a less hectic schedule or more quality family time were met with proverbial eye rolls and a big colossal smirk.

It took diminutive Harold Varner III — all 5-foot-8 of him — to pour a bucket of truth serum on the whole process recently when he signed on with LIV Golf. Varner, arguably the most liked player on the PGA Tour, was contacted about making the jump in November but waited until last week to sign on.

Did he want to see what other players would be joining LIV — the likes of stars Cam Smith, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau over the last few months — before making his final call?

"Hell no, that’s where you mess up, by doing something because somebody else is doing it," said Varner on Tuesday during his annual visit to the Country Club of North Carolina to drum up support for his HV3 Foundation golf charity. "I just want to go make as much money as I possibly can."

There, finally somebody said it. Sure, it’s about the money … and what’s so wrong about that, Varner and others in his camp point out.

"He is a professional golfer and his job is to play for money," said Jason Cox, executive director of the HV3 Foundation. "Why would you not go where they are paying the most money?"

It’s too early to tell if Varner’s move to the Saudi-backed LIV Golf will hurt donations to his charity, which brings awareness to the rising cost of entry and access in sports, aiming to provide financial assistance for equipment, after school programs, instruction, camps and various other avenues where an athlete can cultivate his/her passion.

"We hope not," Cox said. "The foundation does a lot of good with Harold’s fund-raising efforts and vision to help kids. We’re trying to get as many juniors on the golf course in an affordable way and get as many kids involved in sports in an affordable way. If somebody doesn’t support them we appreciate their past support and wish them well. It is not going to change our mission."

For the first time in his career the 32-year-old Varner played in every major and was ranked as high as 35th in the world. There is a real possibility that LIV golfers will be shut out of playing on golf’s biggest stages in 2023, but Varner, now just reaching the prime of his career, is at peace with his decision.     

Harold Varner III puts on a clinic for youth during an event for his HV3 Foundation on Sept. 6, 2022, at the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, North Carolina,

"I dreamed about going home and the lights would be on and things would be easy, not winning a major," said Varner, one of just a few black golfers in professional golf. "That’s the difference. That’s what is wrong with golf. They just assume that every kid who plays golf is a country club kid, and for the most part they are, and that’s where I struggle. People ask ‘Why would you give up that dream, of possibly winning the Masters?' Well, hey bud, that wasn’t my dream. My dream was to make as much money on the PGA Tour as possible, and now there is another tour that makes a lot more money and with more money I can help more people."

Varner teamed up with PGA Tour newcomer Trevor Cole at this week’s clinic for kids at CCNC in the North Carolina Sandhills. The two have been friends since junior golfing days.

"It’s only a divorce because that’s the way the media writes it," Varner said of pitting PGA Tour players versus LIV golfers. "Trevor is coming on to the PGA Tour and he’s here with me. They are really good at making things so divisive. The world is really good at that.

"I never played the PGA Tour just to say I play on the PGA Tour. People look up to the PGA Tour since it has been around so long and that’s just fine. If they presented Trevor with $10 million I bet he would think differently. Everyone is in their own shoes and I respect everyone. I like everyone on Tour and there are very few people I don’t get along with in life, so I’m not worried about it but I think the hatred is just ugly. You think of golf as being a gentlemen’s sport and that’s not what this has been. I could care less now. My job is to play good golf.”

Earlier this year Varner sank a 90-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole to win the PIF Saudi International in dramatic fashion. He doesn’t even know where the trophy is.

"Don’t talk to me about trophies. I don’t need a trophy," Varner said. "It does not solidify who I am as a person. I am kind of embarrassed that that’s really all some people look forward to. If that’s all you look forward to is a trophy then you are missing out on life in my opinion.

"Hell yeah (it has been hard), because people are hating on me for no reason," Varner added of reaction to his jump to LIV. "I like to be liked, who doesn’t? But the articles last week did a terrible job of saying I was depressed. Trust me, I’m not, I’m totally fine with my decision. I think it’s weird you are hated because you want to take care of your family."

Varner wishes the PGA Tour well and is thankful for the opportunity it presented him. The former East Carolina University All-American has career earnings of $10.7 million.

"I really respect a lot of people who work for the Tour and that’s their job and I would never try to do anything to hurt those people," he said. "But I find it funny you can tell a man what to do about taking money when you already have so much money. That’s what I don’t understand. You are full of it if you think you just deserve stuff in life."

"I did it (switched to LIV Golf) because it was presented to me. I don’t care what the process of getting to that point is. I guess making a 90-foot putt helped out a lot. But sometimes it not on merit, sometimes it is on merit. If it’s on merit I can go play the PGA Tour and keep my card, I’m good enough, I don’t have any doubt about my ability. You can’t take that away from me. I have just never have dreamed about having my name on this trophy or that trophy. That’s not what I care about; I care about changing people’s lives."

So, by all accounts, the PGA Tour in Varner has lost a true ambassador to the game and one of its most popular figures.