East Carolina University alum Harold Varner III came back from two strokes behind at the Australian PGA Championship to upend long-time leader and Aussie Andrew Dodt to win the tournament.
Last year, Varner entered the final round of this tournament tied with South African Dylan Frittelli, and after a two-over-par round, he found himself in a three-way-playoff with Frittelli and Australian Nathan Holman. It took only one hole for the Australian to take home the title, making it 16 years in a row the trophy stayed in its home country.
However, this year at the RACV Royal Pines Resort it was a much different story. Varner entered the final round two strokes behind and went toe-to-toe down the stretch with Dodt, shooting a 7-under-65 to win the tournament by two strokes. His final score of 269 is tied for the third-lowest score since the tournament changed to stroke play in 1964.
“I stayed up a lot longer to watch him last year,” said ECU men’s golf coach Press McPhaul, who coached Varner from 2008-12. “Last time he lost in a playoff, so I’m glad he won in regulation this year because it gave me a chance to get some sleep.”
The tournament hosted an exceptional field, with major winners Adam Scott, who placed third, and Y.E Yang, who tied for 72nd. Other PGA Tour members like Ian Poulter, Danny Lee, Ryan Fox and Dodt all made the cut as well, with Fox finishing in the top 10 at 7-under par.
Varner took the lead on the eighth hole when he put his second shot inside a foot and went onto make the birdie putt. On the next hole Varner got into trouble off the tee, but with another one putt and a third birdie in a row he managed to keep the lead over Dodt, who birdied the hole for the fourth time.
Things got a bit dicey for the future winner on hole 14, when he missed a short par putt to drop a shot while Dodt holed out from 40 feet to level things at 17-under. Scott, who was four shots off the lead, made a shot on hole 15 from a similar distance for eagle to stay in the mix down the stretch.
With back-to-back birdies on holes 15 and 16, Varner took a two stroke lead that he will not relinquish until the tournament next year.
In Varner’s time at East Carolina he became the first player in school history to be named Conference USA Player-of-the-Year. In his four years, Varner compiled two first-place finishes and 10 top-five finishes.
“He came to us initially very raw but his greatest strength has always been his competitive desire,” McPhaul said. “He’s a confident kid who’s able to move to the next challenge quickly, which allows him to face each challenge without being too high or too low.”
ECU amassed four top-five finishes in its five tournaments during the fall season, and Varner hasn’t missed a beat of his alma mater’s success.
“I still talk to him fairly often,” McPhaul said. “He keeps a very close eye [on the team]. He’s a fan of all the teams here, but he follows his old team closest.”
Varner is currently ranked No. 108 in the Official World Golf Rankings. This win marks his first professional victory, although he is still seeking his first PGA Tour win, since this tournament is part of the European tour.
ECU golf starts its spring season on February 6, at the Sea Best Invitational in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida.