Harold Varner III knows the importance of access when it comes to playing golf. As a youngster, his love for the game was developed at a municipal course in Gastonia, North Carolina, where juniors could play on weekdays all summer for $100.
That opportunity helped Varner and his family clear a significant financial hurdle, giving him the chance to hone skills that would take him to the PGA TOUR. Today, Varner is passionate about providing similar access for kids who want to play golf and through his foundation has been funding about 40% of the Youth on Course program in the Carolinas that allows participants to play rounds for $5 or less. There are now more than 1,400 courses nationwide affiliated with Youth on Course, including 84 partner courses in the Carolinas, which joined the organization in 2018.
“It’s the closest thing to what my journey was about when it came to golf,” Varner said by phone. “It’s cool they have these programs where people are introduced to the game, but Youth on Course gives you a chance to play and learn – the interest in the dirt type of thing. That intrigued me.”
One of only a few black golfers in the professional ranks, Varner shares many of the same values as Youth on Course, among them helping to open doors and transforming the lives of youth through opportunities on and off the golf course. It’s one of the reasons YOC has named Varner as the first national ambassador in its 15-year history, a role in which he’ll not only advocate for the non-profit organization’s mission of providing affordable access to golf but look to help create a more inclusive and diverse future for the game.
“Allowing kids of all backgrounds to play the game without placing financial burdens on families is a game changer,” says Varner. “I’m so appreciative of the support I had as a junior golfer and have been fortunate to be able to give back to the next generation of young golfers. I’ve always been passionate about making the game more open and accessible and YOC has shown they share my goals.”
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Varner created his HV3 Foundation in 2019 to bring awareness to the rising cost of youth sports as well as to provide kids with affordable opportunities to play golf. Whether it’s after-school programs, instruction and camps, or financial assistance for equipment, Varner’s foundation has helped offset barriers to entry through his personal funding, fundraising, donations and sponsorships. The HV3 Foundation hosts an annual invitational tournament for junior golfers and is the tournament title sponsor for an American Junior Golf Association All-Star event. Varner also pledged $15,000 a year for three years to help fund Youth on Course in the Carolinas as he and his foundation continue to raise additional money for the program.
Youth on Course CEO Adam Heieck calls Varner “the perfect role model” to represent the organization on a national scale.
“Harold has been a vocal champion of our organization for years, not to mention his significant financial contributions which made a huge difference for young golfers in the Carolinas,” Heieck said.
Golf engagement surged throughout the U.S. in 2020, with about 60 million more rounds played than in 2019, and the pandemic contributed to an increase of 630,000 additional junior golfers (ages 6-17), according to the National Golf Foundation. Youth on Course saw a 56% rise in its membership ranks, subsidizing 400,000 rounds of golf in 2020 – double its total from the year before. Those rounds (frequently late-day or twilight) were a boon for golf facilities, too, generating $2.8 million back to golf courses from unused tee times.
“We are really fortunate in working with facilities that understand our mission and see the value in creating the value for young people who are essentially going to be their future customers,” said Ashleigh McLaughlin, Youth on Course’s VP of Marketing & Communications.
A former golfer at Florida State, McLaughlin joined YOC in early 2020 after 10 years with the LPGA Tour, where she worked on initiatives designed to help bring underrepresented groups to golf. McLaughlin was introduced to golf as a youngster through the Orlando Minority Youth Golf Association, an inner-city program that helped get funding for golf equipment, space and educational materials through private donors and the city’s recreation department.
“We’ve already started having conversations about the future and what this could be,” McLaughlin said about the partnership between Varner and Youth on Course. “They really see this as just the beginning. They want it to be a relationship and an impact that evolves and grows as their foundation grows and Youth on Course grows. They want to be a part of that every step of the way. It’s not just in name. They’re totally all-in and want to help steer the direction that we go long-term.”
For Varner, it’s not just a great opportunity. He sees it as the right thing to do.
“I’m excited because it gives kids something I always had growing up and wanted to share,” he says. “But 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. The reason I’m where I’m at is because individuals have invested their time and money into my life.”