A friendship ‘bigger than a video game’
Varner, Ortiz finally meet their unlikely friend at the Mayakoba Golf Classic
November 13, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
The most unique friendship
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico – A video game brought them together.
Then golf did.
Not quite a year after a chance encounter on “Call of Duty,” Harold Varner III finally met gamer pal Arturo at the Mayakoba Golf Classic on Tuesday. Carlos Ortiz, one of seven players representing Mexico here, and Preston Lyon, Varner’s childhood friend and agent – both of whom also know Arturo through the game – were also on site.
They’ve spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours together, but this was the first time they had met in person.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” said Arturo, a 22-year-old college student from Mexico, smiling through his braces. He wore jeans and a red Tommy Hilfiger sweater and admitted to being too nervous to have slept much the night before.
Varner, 29, giggled like a kid at Christmas. Ortiz, a married father of two whose gaming has taken a back seat to family time, grinned and shook his head at the improbability of it all.
The PGA TOUR is full of golfers lending a hand, oftentimes prioritizing the human connection above even wins and losses. As Varner put it at the BMW Championship last summer, “What’s going to matter is how we affected the people in our community and who we reached out to.”
He and Arturo hugged on the practice green at El Camaleon Golf Club on Tuesday. Then came Mexico’s Ortiz. They played the video game that afternoon, and Arturo caddied for Varner in the rain-delayed pro-am Wednesday. Oh, and he’s also staying with Varner all week.
All parties remain amazed at how this developed. At the start of this year, Varner and Lyon, new to “Call of Duty,” in which gamers play on squads of four, joined Jake Buchanan, a professional baseball player and another friend from their hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina.
“We needed a fourth,” Lyon said, “and ended up with Arturo.”
Buchanan got ejected due to a network error, and Lyon and Varner decided to leave the game but changed their minds when they realized the kid they’d been grouped with was very, very good.
“I’ve played since 2012,” Arturo said with a shrug. “I was 14 or 15.”
Arturo was intrigued by his new friends, even if they weren’t as good, and mentioned them to a bilingual gamer friend named Jorge Chávez, a 31-year-old loan processor in Phoenix, Arizona.
“I got home, and they’d just signed off,” Chávez said in a phone interview. “Arturo said, ‘Hey, man, I just played with a group of guys.’ He thought they were baseball players.”
Soon, they formed a new four-man team: Varner, Lyon, Chávez (who translated) and Arturo.
“It evolved,” Lyon said. “Arturo kind of warmed up, he started trying to speak English, which – he speaks perfect English. I think he and Harold have a lot of similarities in the way they grew up. Both come from good parents, and maybe didn’t have as much but kept a positive mindset. Arturo is in school to be an engineer; he’s got goals just like Harold had goals.”
Ortiz soon began to join in, and Arturo learned that he was playing with golfers, not baseball players. He asked if Ortiz and Varner were rich. Could they, for example, order anything they wanted at restaurants? They said they could … and then contemplated the nature of the question.
Sensing Arturo’s tenuous financial situation, they bought Arturo new gaming equipment and sent it to him, which was far more of a logistical challenge than a financial one.
The relationship deepened in April, when on Arturo’s 22nd birthday his father had a heart attack. The youngest of four, Arturo went to the hospital to be with his dad, and temporarily withdrew from the game. For a few days, his gaming friends didn’t know where he’d gone.
And then they did.
“On the second day in the hospital, Harold instant-messaged me,” Arturo said. “‘Hey, bro, you good?’ I said, ‘No, I’m good.’ Because I thought I was. I never thought …”
His father spent five days in intensive care before dying at 59.
“It was heartbreaking,” Lyon said. “It was tough to see it all go down.”
Then, a further complication: Due to a mistake on the death certificate, his father being listed as single, Arturo’s mother couldn’t be transferred vital pension money. He asked Lyon for permission to sell the new gaming equipment to pay for funeral expenses. Lyon said not to do that and sent $800, enough to for Arturo’s family to get by while the paperwork was sorted out.
“It became the thing to do right now; who cares if we’ve never seen him?” Lyon said. “That’s the way Harold is; it’s easy to do things like this and impact people. That’s how we grew up. It became a little bit bigger than ourselves; bigger than a video game. It circled back to humanity.”
They made plans to meet at Mayakoba, where Arturo, who is beyond grateful, gave the golfers a gift of foods and other items from his hometown. They also gave each other the needle, like they do when they’re wearing headsets and playing the game. Arturo razzed Ortiz for never being able to play now that he has two kids; Varner jokingly complained that school is taking too much of Arturo’s time; Arturo playfully noted Varner’s physique (stout) and hairline (receding).
“It’s hard to believe this,” Arturo said. “Because from one match playing with Harold, I am here. I’m a guy who was playing ‘Call of Duty.’ Now I’m here. I love Harold.”
He pronounces it “Gerald,” and sometimes searches for the right words in English, but he’s made big strides at learning the language. He’s in his second year of college and aims to go to work for his family just as soon as he completes his architectural engineering degree. Ortiz’s father, who has a construction business, has said he’ll help him get a job right now.
“Everyone is like, ‘If you come from here, you have this much percentage chance of making it,’” Varner said. “I don’t care what your percentage is; I just want to give you a chance.”
He, Lyon and Ortiz continue to help Arturo any way they can, even funding his nominal gaming dues (as low as $35 to re-up), which would not be quite so nominal for him.
“I think we’ve learned more about life from him,” Ortiz said, “than he has from us. We want to help him. We want to see him grow.”
Added Varner, “What’s cool is whenever he makes it, he’s gonna help someone else.”
More than striving for trophies, that’s just the Varner way. You might even say it’s his call of duty.