Ernst savors unlikely playoff payoff
Early in the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship, PGA Tour rookie Derek Ernst noticed the names of Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Nick Watney and Rory McIlroy at the top of the leaderboard and didn’t think much about it.
“Nick is sort of a hero of mine when I was in high school in Fresno (Calif.) because he played at Fresno State,” said Ernst, who was about to graduate from Nevada-Las Vegas this time last year. “But I saw they were up there and didn’t think it was anything special because they are always up there.”
When it was over, Ernst was at the top with his first PGA Tour victory in only his ninth try after beating David Lynn, another relative unknown, in a one-hole playoff after the bigger names went down the drain as rain pelted the Quail Hollow Club.
“It’s sunk in a little,” Ernst said minutes after tapping in for victory. “I’m sure in a couple of days it will be more unbelievable than it is right now, yeah.”
To say it was unexpected is an understatement. His last victory in a tournament of any kind came in college 13 months ago. He got his Tour card through qualifying school last fall and had made only three cuts in his previous eight starts. Ernst came into the week 1,207th in the world ranking, He originally wasn’t in the field and was headed for a web.com tournament in Athens, Ga., when he got the call that he was in as the fourth alternate.
Ernst thinks he can thank Mark Wilson for withdrawing for that. He and Lynn, who tied at 8-under after shooting 2-under-par 70s, can thank another Mickelson meltdown for putting them in the playoff long after the other big names wilted.
Mickelson led most of the way and was at 9-under before letting a much-wanted Quail Hollow victory slip through his grasp. A poor shot out of a bunker cost him a chance at birdie on the par-5 15th. That was followed by bogeys on 16 and 17 to drop to 7-under. He had a birdie attempt at 18 but ran the putt about five feet past.
“I’m pretty bummed about it,” Mickelson said. “This is one I had in control. If I had gotten up-and-down on 15, I would have had a 2-shot lead and that would have been nice to have. But, I hit a poor bunker shot and left the putt short.
“Then I bogeyed 16 and 17. There’s no excuse. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary difficult. I should have made par.”
Mickelson, who shot a final-round 73, said he made the effort at 16 more difficult by winding up with the downhill putt. On 17, he hit a par putt too hard because he had left putts short there.
“My target was to get to 10-under,” Mickelson said. “I felt if I could get to 10-under, I could win the tournament, and 15 was critical because I had an easy bunker shot and left it 12 feet short.”
While Mickelson thought about target numbers, Ernst tried not to think too much, something he blames for his struggles so far.
“I just stuck to the process,” Ernst said. “I didn’t think about what I had to do or what I didn’t do. I just thought about each shot.”
The process got him in the playoff when he birdied his 72nd hole. It put him in good shape when he hit his shot into the 18th green about 15 feet from the hole while Lynn hit a poor tee shot, put his second in a bunker and then hit onto the fringe of the green. Lynn couldn’t save par, leaving Ernst only needing to tap in his second putt to win.
Lynn said he hadn’t heard of Ernst before this week.
“He played super,” Lynn said. “He could have won it in regular play but he missed a few short putts. He played solid in regular play and then hit two solid shots in the playoff.”
Lynn, who is from England and splits time between the European and U.S. Tours, won’t play in the States again until the PGA Championship in August.
Ernst won’t have to worry about being an alternate any time soon. The win provides him a spot in any PGA Tour event through the end of the 2015 season. He also earned a berth in this week’s Players Championship and the Masters next year.
The biggest perk?
“It’s the two years on the Tour for sure,” Ernst said. “The money (a prize of over $1 million) will come and go. But winning and having a job out there for the next two years, that’s what I want to do. I want to play out here and that’s the best part.”
He won’t have to worry about other players not knowing who he is anymore.