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Varner set to defend county amateur title

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

Andy Varner attempts to further solidify his name in Grant County golf annals with an eighth men’s amateur championship but admits he’s not in peak form.

With advancing age and two children involved in youth sports, Varner isn’t the same force as when he started dominating the local golf scene more than a decade ago. But he will dutifully submit his entry form today on his 35th birthday and see what happens.

Varner will be the defending champion when the 88th tournament begins Saturday at Walnut Creek Golf Course. Entries close Monday afternoon and four rounds of tournament golf still costs $75.

“I haven’t played much this year,” Varner said Friday afternoon. “I didn’t play much last year, either. I’m just hoping to get hot at the right time, I guess. I played Elks for the first time on July Fourth and there was a time I’d have played 80 rounds by now.

“I’ve been to a lot of tee-ball games and soccer and that’s more important to me than playing golf,” he continued. “I love going to watch them play, and they always come first. If I get to play golf, fine, and if I don’t then that’s all right.”

Varner’s family situation is typical of many golfers and among the myriad reasons turnout for the men’s and women’s tournaments have declined over the past decade. So far, he hasn’t faced a conflict between golf or attending his son’s sporting events, but others have and increasingly are choosing the latter.

Doug Piper, Arbor Trace pro, is organizing the tournament and said as of Wednesday afternoon he has received few entries at his course. Most golfers wait until the last weekend to enter and Piper is hopeful the field will remain close to the number of entrants as the past few years.

“Right now, it’s very slow,” he said. “I haven’t talked to (the other courses) but I’ve only got six men and one woman. ... In the past we’ve had around around 40 men and if we get anything near that I’d be happy. The women, we’ve had four before, so if we have two groups of women that would be real good.”

The declining population in Marion and Grant County certainly has contributed to the smaller fields. Participation among junior golfers has dropped markedly due to social media and other activities. Yet, Piper said many of his members just choose not to play tournament golf.

“We have a small percentage who get into the amateur and for whatever reason it doesn’t hold the luster it used to,” Piper said. “I’m not quite sure why. I met with Randy (Ballinger) at Walnut Creek and Robbie (Riddle) at Meshingomesia earlier this spring and talked things over a little bit and tried to come up with some ideas. But nobody had any idea how to increase participation.”

Varner has his own theories about the decline.

“Everybody likes to hide behind their handicap anymore,” he said. “Nobody likes to tee it up and play real golf and putt it out and shoot a score and post it in the paper. People still play golf around here, but they hide behind their handicap.”

The men’s amateur has been a flighted tournament for more than 30 years and will continue to be this year if there are enough entries, Piper said. Varner said he would not like to have handicaps factor in the scoring.

“You don’t get a true champion then, just the biggest sandbagger,” Varner said. “I could bowl against Ronnie Russell (Marion pro bowler) if I had 250 pins.”

While the men’s amateur may no longer attract 250 or more golfers, both Piper and Varner agree the best of the best continue to enter each year and the result is a very competitive tournament.

“As long as we get the Andy Varners, the Cody Whites and the Todd Chins we will have the top tier of golfers,” Piper said. “Those guys are the three to beat. I’m not saying others can’t beat them, but they have been the top three and they play every year.”

Only Boyd Toney (13) and Don Humes (12) have won more county men’s amateur titles than Varner’s seven. Varner said he’s always felt challenged playing in the tournament.

“You still have guys around here who are competitive and like to play real golf around here,” he said. “They’ll be in it.”

After opening at Walnut Creek, the amateur will move to Arbor Trace for Sunday’s round. The final rounds July 20 and 21 will be played at the Elks and Meshingomesiacourses.