Past exemption recipients return to Genesis Invitational

Harold Varner III (second from right) poses with his group before beginning his pro-am practice round at the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 16. Varner is a former recipient of the tournament's Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption for minority golfers and has since returned to compete several times. (Alex Hutton/Medill Reports)

By Alex Hutton
Medill Reports

LOS ANGELES — Harold Varner III walked along the fairway of the first hole at Riviera Country Club during his Wednesday pro-am practice round for this weekend’s Genesis Invitational. As he approached the walkway that separates the two sections of fairway, he noticed a piece of trash on the ground. He went to pick it up before the wind, which had been intermittent all day, could blow it away. He succeeded.

“Got it,” he said in a tongue-in-cheek manner, intentionally making his actions seem more remarkable than they actually were.

Varner moved around the course comfortably and with an easygoing demeanor. After all, he’s used to it at this point. It’s his eighth appearance at Genesis. But it wasn’t always that way for him — and fittingly, his professional career received a nice boost from this tournament back in 2014.

That year, Varner received the Charlie Sifford Memorial Exemption to compete in the Genesis Invitational. Created in 2009, the exemption is awarded to one minority golfer each year and is named after Sifford, the first African-American to compete on the PGA Tour. Varner is one of three past exemption recipients competing at Genesis this year, along with 2016 recipient J.J. Spaun and 2018 designee Cameron Champ.

Varner and Champ both have distinct memories of receiving the exemption.

“When I got it, I was just so fired up,” said Varner, who had unsuccessfully applied for the exemption the year before. “I really just wanted to play on the PGA Tour. And I was ready. I’d played in the U.S. Open. And I was just ready to see how I stacked up.”

Champ, like Varner and many others who have played under the exemption, got the opportunity early in his pro career. He had made only a couple of starts before his Genesis debut. The Sacramento native also appreciated being able to compete in his home state in front of his family and acknowledged the historical significance of the exemption.

“Being a part of Mr. Sifford and the history of the game, and obviously (the tournament) being during Black History Month as well, it was definitely special,” Champ said.

Champ ultimately shot a 5-over through two rounds and missed the cut in 2018, but said he remains appreciative of the chance he got to break into PGA competition.

“I had just turned pro and was just kind of getting a feeling of what it’s like out here,” he said. “Hanging out in the guys’ locker room, on the range, doing the pro-am, stuff like that. So for a guy that’s coming out and getting that exemption, it’s just a huge piece of getting exposed to all this and getting the experience under your belt.”

Varner made the cut in 2014 and finished 4-over to tie for 70th place. He remembers making a putt on the final hole to make the cut with Rick Waddell, the chairman of Northern Trust — then the event’s title sponsor — looking on.

Now, several years later, the careers and outlooks of both golfers have changed considerably. They’ve won tournaments on various tours, competed in numerous PGA events and aren’t looking to break through with exemptions anymore. Instead, they find themselves able to observe and develop relationships with other golfers, including Spaun and this year’s Sifford Exemption recipient, Aaron Beverly.

“I keep track of everyone who gets (the exemption), so it’s pretty cool,” Varner said. “You always want to see how it propels them, how they get better. I see J.J. Spaun a lot. We had (kids) at the same time, so that was just crazy. And then I just met Aaron. I didn’t know him before, so that’s super cool.”

Champ has a much closer connection with Beverly. Both are from California, and the two played together while growing up. Although Champ doesn’t want to overload his friend with too much advice, he is using his past experiences from the Genesis Invitational — and the exemption — to speculate on what might be the keys for Beverly to have success.

“For him, I just said, ‘Just enjoy yourself, you know? Have fun with it,’” Champ said. “‘I know you’re probably going to be a little bit nervous, which is good. I mean, nerves (are) never a bad thing. So you just go out and play your game.’ He’ll be perfectly fine.”

Alex Hutton is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexHutton35.