October 14, 2022
The opening round of the 2022 BMW Championship for Harold Varner III and Alex Noren showed that the difference between good and very good can be small but telling.
Both men had a chance to make the FedEx Playoff Final the next week if they went low all four days on Wilmington Country Club’s South Course.
That prospect came into question after routine pars on the first hole. Both short-sided their irons into the left greenside bunker on the uphill 207-yard par-3 second hole. Varner blasted out to 7 feet and Noren’s shot finished 5 feet from the hole, but neither converted their par attempts.
On the uphill par-5 third hole, Varner hit a fine approach that spun back to a few feet from the hole for an easy birdie. Noren’s third finished 18 feet away, leading to par.
Varner made two more birdies with a 9-footer on 4 and a 14-footer on 5. Noren made par on 4 and then challenged himself on 5 by landing in a fairway bunker with his drive. He hit a fine recovery to 27 feet but could only make par.
Varner readily parred the sixth, but Noren hit into trouble when his approach landed in the left green side bunker, well below the green surface. He hit another fine sand shot, this time to 18 inches for a par save.
Noren played the par-3 7th hole in similar fashion, coming out of a front green side bunker to tap-in range. Varner’s 2-putt par was less exciting but equally effective.
Noren showed off his sand-save skills again on the 8th, landing his ball 18 inches from the hole despite the green’s downhill slope from the bunker.
The 622-yard 14th hole proved that the golf course put a premium on keeping it in the fairway. Varner’s drive left him in the center of the fairway, on a slight downslope 250 yards from the center of the green. Noren’s ball drifted left and finished in a deep bird’s nest of rough. A nearby sprinkler head said he was 276 yards out.
After discussion with his caddie, Noren took a hard swing with an iron, but only advanced the ball about 100 yards in the rough. Varner’s second shot flew down the hill and landed in the left green side bunker about 15 yards from the hole.
Noren’s third shot landed on the green about 45 feet from the hole. He made par from there.
Varner could not see the green while down in the bunker. He opened his wedge face to nearly parallel with the ground and made a great thumping swing. The ball popped up, bounced three times, and rolled in for an eagle.
The crowd roared.
Varner said in his post round interview, “I thought it was going to be long of the hole. I was getting out of the bunker, and everyone went nuts. I tried to acknowledge everyone, and I was [also] trying to get out of the bunker and almost fell. Yeah, that was awesome.”
Varner was also blunt about Noren’s struggles on the same hole: “He hit it in the rough and then hit it in the rough again. Just get it out.”
On the par-4 17th, Noren and Varner came up short on their approach shots, with only a few yards separating them. However, Noren’s ball was in the left green side bunker, while Varner’s ball sat a yard or two in light rough to the right of the sand.
Noren’s sand shot finished 4 feet beyond the hole. However, he missed the par save. Varner chipped up to 2 feet and made par.
Noren finished the day one over par, while Varner put himself in contention for the finals with his 5-under 66.
For most of the round the two men matched each other. However, Varner’s comparative success in staying in the fairway and avoiding trouble made the difference.
Varner was jubilant in his post round chat. “The pins were in positions where you didn’t really have to spin it much. I don’t spin the ball a lot … and then I capitalized. You hit them in there and get a little lucky, it gets in there close enough where you have a good look, and I was fortunate enough to make a few putts.”
I noted how often he hit the fairway on his tee shots. Varner responded, “That’s what you expect. You want to play good golf, and that’s what you work to do. It’s not like I’m surprised that all of a sudden I hit it well. I know I can do that. I just haven’t done it in the last two weeks.”
After the round, I watched Noren as he quietly chatted with a reporter from Discovery +, covering the BMW for Swedish TV.
I don’t know Swedish, but slumped shoulders are universally understood.
Three days later Noren finished the tournament at one over par, tied for 52d. Varner could not keep up his first-round pace, finishing at even par and tied for 48th.
Neither golfer qualified for the FedEx finals, and shortly thereafter Varner announced his move to the LIV tour.