As a gifted 17-year-old golfer who grew up across the street from his home course in Anniston, Ala., John Vardaman received a valuable reality check when he qualified for the National Jaycees Tournament in 1957 in Columbus, Ohio. Jack Nicklaus also was in the field, and Vardaman learned at an early age that perhaps he would be better off following a different career path.
"Jack hit it high and hit it long, and when you watched him play, you knew you would never be able to compete with that," Vardaman said recently. "I can remember seeing the way he played and thinking, 'It's gonna be law school for you, ol' buddy.' It just confirmed to me that I'd probably have a better shot at being a top-flight lawyer than at being a professional golfer."
Still, Vardaman shot a 73 and led after the first round of qualifying for that Jaycee tournament on a day Nicklaus posted 75. Vardaman, known to his friends as "Jack," finished 10th. While several of the big-time golf colleges of that era were interested in him, Vardaman stuck to a more scholarly plan, enrolling at Washington-Lee in Lexington, Va., and focusing on his pre-law studies while still competing at the Division III level.
Almost 50 years later, Vardaman has no regrets about his decision to prepare for a career other than golf. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1965, clerked for the late Supreme Court justice Hugo Black for two years and became a nationally renowned litigator and senior partner for the Washington firm of Williams & Connolly, where he has been practicing law since 1970.
Early in his career, he gave up golf for almost 10 years while trying to balance the demands of work and raising his family in Northwest Washington. But at age 65, with the full support of his wife, Marianne, and his four grown children, he finds himself practicing for golf at the highest levels of the amateur game as one of the nation's finest senior players.
Last year, he made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Golf Association's Senior Amateur national championship for players 55 and over, along the way eliminating defending champion Kemp Richardson by a 4-and-3 margin at Bel Air in Los Angeles. He went one step further last month at The Farm, a new Tom Fazio course in Dalton, Ga., losing to eventual champion Mike Rice in the semifinals.
Vardaman's golfing resume includes qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open three times, including the '97 tournament at his home course at Congressional. He tied for fourth at the British Senior Amateur in 2001, was runner-up in the 1987 Maryland Amateur championship and has won a wide variety of prestigious amateur, team and individual competitions at some of the most demanding courses in the country, including Pine Valley, Winged Foot and Seminole. Until 2004, he also served as legal counsel to the U.S. Golf Association and as a member of the executive committee.
How does he manage to remain a competitive scratch player while still maintaining an active law practice?
"You have to be pretty disciplined," he said. "You have to make your plans well in advance, and you also need understanding clients and law partners. My partners know there are certain times I won't be here. But if I'm needed by a client, I'm here. The golf becomes secondary. I would hope it doesn't bother anyone at the firm. They've all been very accommodating."
Lon Babby, one of his longtime partners at Williams & Connolly, said Vardaman's colleagues truly revel in his accomplishments.
"The dynamic is that everyone is completely supportive, and actually a little jealous," said Babby, who represents a number of professional athletes in a variety of sports, including Grant Hill. "I think people view him as one of the great contributors to the success of the firm, not only in the quality of his work and his ability to attract clients, but also for the critical role he played when Edward Bennett Williams died [in 1988] to help us get through a very difficult time and move the firm from the first generation to the next generation.
"He's highly productive, even with a somewhat reduced workload. People respect the fact that he's truly a national class athlete. I don't think there's even a whiff of anyone being unhappy with the arrangement."
Vardaman plays in one or two events per month but still spends many hours at the firm's downtown office or in court. He tries to get away late in the day once or twice a week to hit balls at the Congressional practice range and usually plays at the club once or twice on the weekend.
He also has owned a home in Hot Springs, Va., since 1980 and plays there on vacations and the occasional long weekend.
The late Sam Snead was a good friend and frequent playing companion, and Vardaman also has played a lot of golf with J.C. Snead, Sam's nephew and a longtime touring professional on the regular and senior PGA tours.
"Sam played golf to the point where he couldn't even see," Vardaman said. "Even though he was older, he could still play. When he was 72, he shot 60 at the Lower Cascades course [at the Homestead]. He could hit it long, and he could work the ball any way he wanted to. For me, it was a lesson just to watch him play, and a history lesson just to hear his stories."
Playing with J.C. Snead also served as a similar reality check to his teenage epiphany with Nicklaus.
"If you have any thoughts about playing the Senior [Champions] Tour [at age 50], you've really got to start preparing when you're 45," he said. "But I had a family and an active law practice. J.C. was usually four or five shots better than I am, and he didn't exactly set the world on fire on that tour. It was just further validation of my decision not to go in that direction. I couldn't get close to him."
But Vardaman is extremely competitive as a senior amateur. Not especially long off the tee, he is nevertheless accurate with his driver, a man who keeps the ball in play and has a wonderful touch with his short game. More than anything, he also relishes the thrill of competition.
"I think playing golf has really helped me a lot when I went to law school and then into practice," he said. "A lot of kids at Harvard were smarter than I was, but I could handle the pressure. The game teaches you a lot of things: how important it is to prepare yourself, whether it's a tournament or a trial. It teaches you how to deal with stress and anxiety. If you want to be at the top of anything, it's usually a nerve-racking process, but that's where you want to be.
"The worst thing is to be in the last round of a tournament and out of contention. You want to be there in the heat of the battle. You want to be nervous. If I'm arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court and I get a little nervous, well then it must be important. Edward Bennett Williams used to say, 'If you're not nervous before a big case, then it's probably time to quit.' "