By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP Sports Columnist
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — The only color Harold Varner III focused on in his first Masters was red.
And maybe if he let his mind wander a bit, there was a green thought.
Barely looking like a rookie in the increasingly fierce windy conditions of Augusta National, the 31-year-old North Carolina posted his second straight under-par round on Friday – a pair of red numbers that have pushed to argue before the weekend.
But let’s talk about another color.
Varner is black, and he’s apparently part of something unheard of on a journey that cherishes its history and traditions as much as any, even though many of them are relics of a much uglier time.
It is believed to be the first time that three black golfers – in this case, Varner, Tiger Woods and Cameron Champ – have been part of a Masters champ.
“That’s cool,” Varner said. “I hope to see more, but it’s going to be up to that person. It’s not going to be the color of their skin that gets them here. You’re going to get here on merit, and I think that’s great.
On the heels of America’s racial toll in the summer of 2020 and the death a few months ago of Augusta trailblazer Lee Elder, the significance of this moment should not be ignored.
But don’t make it something bigger than it is.
A quarter century from Woods’ historic first Masters victory, there are still too few black players in golf’s pipeline. A sport that has long discriminated against people of color still has a long way to go to attract more of them to the course.
Think of it this way: Three black golfers represent just 3.3% of the 91 players who qualified for the first major tournament of the year. Woods remains the only black golfer to have won a major championship.
Varner knows that lack of access is one of the big issues facing potential black golfers.
It is an expensive sport to practice. The best courses are rarely located in black communities. Varner hopes his Masters debut will help break down some of those barriers.
“I think a lot of times in the black community it’s more about economic issues,” he said. “It’s just hard to play golf. You can’t just go up and play golf for a reasonable price. I am very determined to help these people. If they are black, I will help them. If they are white, I will help them.
It’s understandable that Varner wants to be known as more than a black golfer. He wants people to respect him for the quality of his shots rather than the color of his skin.
“I was never asked to be a black golfer until I was on the PGA Tour,” he said.
Of course, it’s not just the economy that has kept black golfers off the top courses for most of the sport’s history.
The PGA of America had a loathsome “Caucasian only” rule until 1961. It wasn’t until 1975 that Elder became the first black player to qualify for the Masters. Augusta National didn’t allow its first black member until 1990 – and only then to slide through the controversy over Shoal Creek Country Club hosting the PGA Championship while refusing to allow black golfers as members.
Augusta National’s sexist side was also reignited this week, when chairman Fred Ridley was asked about the club’s 10th anniversary allowing women as members.
Yes, that obvious decision was just ten years ago.
“Our culture is better,” Ridley said, sounding almost sorry it took so long. “We are a better club, a better organization, and we are proud to have women in our membership.
“When something happens or an idea you had turns out to be good and you’re happy with it, you can always say, ‘Well, why didn’t we do this sooner?’ That’s a righteous thought. I wish we had it.
The same goes for Augusta National’s approach to race.
It was only after protests rocked the nation in the summer of 2020 that the club felt compelled to really get involved.
Elder was asked to strike the ceremonial tee shot at the 2021 Masters, but by then – aged 86 – he was too weak to rock the club alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. They would be the last masters of Elder; he died last November.
Augusta National has also funded golf scholarships in Elder’s name for the historically black Paine College, as well as the start of a women’s golf program at the school located just 4 miles from Magnolia Lane.
Perhaps if Augusta National had supported these kinds of initiatives 20 or 30 years ago, instead of stubbornly clinging to the past for too long, there would have been more than three black players at this Masters.
But, for the moment at least, we will have to be satisfied with the weak signs of progress which will be displayed this weekend at the Masters.
Varner will play in one of the final groups on Saturday. Champ was guaranteed to make the cut. And Woods, in his first competitive tournament since a devastating car accident 14 months ago, qualified for the weekend after an electrifying first round.
As he prepared to putt No. 18, Varner even allowed himself to reflect on what might happen on Sunday night.
“I was joking with my caddy,” he said. “I was like, ‘What if you had this to win?’ Yes, I think about it all the time.”
Hopefully others think about it too.
Never before have kids of color had so many players they can relate to at Augusta National.
“I think that means those guys played really well,” Varner said. “In professional sports, this scoreboard doesn’t read color.”
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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