Derek Ernst started the week as fourth alternate for the Wells Fargo Championship. After notching his best finish in his rookie year, T47 at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, he rented a car to drive to Athens, Georgia, for the Web.Com Tour event.
On the way there, Ernst got a call that he would replace Freddie Jacobson, who had been the fourth player to withdraw. To avoid a $1,000 drop fee, the 22-year-old UNLV grad had to drive back and return the car to Athens and rent another car to get to Charlotte.
In a strange week at Quail Hollow, where the greens weren’t exactly up to par and the weather felt more like Scotland than Charlotte, it was only fitting that Ernst, who had missed five of seven cuts this season, was crowned the champion.
Ernst beat David Lynn on the first playoff hole with a par on the 18th.
“This feeling is unbelievable right now,” said Ernst, who earned his PGA Tour card through the now defunct Q-school. “Just at the beginning of the week not even knowing I was going to be in the field. I was fourth alternate last time I heard, and then a couple people dropped out so I got in.
“All week long my swing felt good, mental game was good. The big thing was, what I said all week long is, I got out of my own way, and it paid off for now.”
Ernst, who played with Lee Westwood and Lynn on this rainy Sunday, knew Lynn was at 8-under as he set up for his approach on the 18th in regulation. He hit a six-iron with a draw and knocked it to four feet and made birdie to post a final-round two-under 70 and ultimately force a playoff.
“I was trying to hit it as close as I possibly could,” said Ernst, who was a senior at UNLV a year ago. “I knew Dave was at 8(-under), so I didn’t know what Phil was or where he was at. So I was just trying to get tied with David at 8.”
Phil Mickelson had control of the lead for most of the weekend, but two late bogeys on No. 16 and 17 lost him the tournament. Ernst was on the practice green with Lynn when he heard the crowd groan, which meant Mickelson had missed his birdie putt and wouldn’t join the playoff.
“I’m pretty bummed out,” said Phil, following his one-over 73. “I thought that this was one I had in control. If I could have gotten that bunker shot up-and-down on 15, I would have had a two-shot lead heading into those last three holes, which I know are very difficult holes, so it would have been nice to have that. Unfortunately, I hit a poor bunker shot and left the putt short. Then I bogeyed 16 and 17.
“There is just no excuse. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary or difficult. I should have made par.”
Mickelson has played 40 competitive rounds at Quail Hollow and he’s not exactly a big fan of the par-3 17th, which he’s played 14-over in his career.
Even when he was teeing off in the first extra hole, Ernst wasn’t thinking about winning, which turned out to be a huge key to his success.
“I stuck to the process,” he said. “I didn’t think about what I had to do or what I didn’t do. I just thought about each shot. It was what’s next? What is the next one? How am I going to get this next one in the hole, so that was big.”
Lynn hadn’t heard of Ernst before this week, but complimented the rookie’s play.
“He played super,” said Lynn, who notched his second top-5 finish in his first season in America. “I mean, he could have won it quite easily in regular play. He missed a few short putts in regular play, he played the finish really solid, and then he hit two really solid shots in the playoff. So every credit to him, well done.”
Interesting fact about Ernst: he has blurred vision in his right eye due to a freak accident when he was a kid, which makes him extremely left-eye dominant. When he was in second grade, he was making his mom a Valentine’s Day gift. He had a little kid’s toolset and he was cutting a PVC pipe with a mini saw when it got stuck, so he threw it on the ground and the pipe him straight in the right eye, splitting his eye ball. He needed 10 stitches, leaving him with a big blur spot in the middle of his eye.
“I was making a fence, and I was putting like bears inside the fence. I must have really loved my mom in second grade,” said Ernst, laughing.
Of all the spoils that come along with winning on the PGA Tour, which includes a $1.2 million payday, Ernst is most excited about the two-year exemption.
“The money is money, it will come and go,” he said. “But winning and having a job and playing out here for the next two years, that’s what I want to do. I want to play out here, so that is the best part.”
Prior to this week, Ernst had earned $28,255 in 2013.
With the victory, he earned a spot in this upcoming week’s Players Championship. Originally, he was going to head home to Vegas, go get a lesson with his instructor Susie Meyers, who also teaches Michael Thompson, the Honda Classic champ, and then head to Dallas to play the Byron Nelson Championship.
Ernst won’t have to drive to Jacksonville.
“No, I think I’ll fly this time,” he said, laughing.
He’ll be able to afford that $1,000 drop fee in the future, though.
(AP Photo/Chuck Burton)