As the first national ambassador for Youth on Course, Harold Varner III is excited about an even greater opportunity to provide juniors the same kind of access to affordable golf that helped foster his love for the game.
Varner grew up playing at a municipal golf course outside Charlotte, where kids under 18 could play weekdays all summer for just $100. It was an opportunity that helped Varner develop a passion for the game and hone the skills that took him to the PGA TOUR. Now, Varner is looking to open doors for other kids like him, both through his HV3 Foundation and Youth on Course, a non-profit that provides 100,000 members with subsidized rounds of golf for $5 or less at over 1,400 courses throughout North America.
“It’s the closest thing to what my journey was about when it came to golf,” Varner said of Youth on Course. “It’s cool they have these programs where people are introduced (to golf), but Youth on Course gives you a chance to play and learn – the interest in the dirt-type thing. That intrigued me. It was more about just giving someone the same opportunity I had.”
Varner has been affiliated with the Carolina Golf Association since his junior playing days and, when it partnered with Youth on Course, his foundation pledged $15,000 a year for three years to support YOC’s programming in North and South Carolina. The non-profit organization, which has subsidized more than 1 million rounds for juniors since 2006, currently has 84 participating courses and just over 3,000 members in the Carolinas. Varner and his foundation continue to raise additional money outside of what they’ve donated, with the eventual goal of fully funding the Carolina programs.
It’s that commitment at a local level that made Varner “the perfect role model” to represent Youth on Course nationally, says CEO Adam Heieck.
NGF research showed that golf engagement surged throughout the U.S. in 2020, when play was up 14% year-over-year despite the loss of 20 million spring rounds due to the pandemic. More than 3 million juniors (6-17) played on a golf course, their ranks swelling by 630,000 – the industry’s biggest jump since 1997, the year Tiger Woods won his first major championship. Varner was just 7 years old at the time. In the years to come, he was among a legion of youngsters who saw Woods “make (golf) cool,” even if there wasn’t a lot of industry focus on how to get those kids on the golf course.
“If there’s a black kid like me that has the same opportunity, then he has a chance, but if the guy doesn’t have a way to play golf, then it doesn’t matter who he looks up to,” Varner said. “Golf isn’t a sport like basketball where you can pick it up and be really good really quickly.”
Youth on Course saw a 56% membership rise in 2020 and subsidized 400,000 rounds of golf – double its total from the year before. Those rounds (frequently late-day or twilight) helped generate $2.8 million for golf facilities from unused tee times.
In expanding his role with Youth on Course as a national ambassador, Varner is eager to create even more opportunities for kids, knowing first-hand the long-term impact it can have.
“How else do you explain it? You have a great opportunity, but it’s the right thing to do,” Varner said. “I’m excited because it gives kids something I always had growing up and wanted to share. There’s still a long way to go in making golf more accessible. I’m excited that it’s getting us closer to there. I’m excited for the people who have donated money to my foundation to see things like this. I just think I’m doing the right thing in giving back to what I believe in. That’s the reason I’m where I’m at is because individuals have invested their time and money into my life.”
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