Masters Week at Augusta National Golf Club is arguably the biggest week in golf, and the experience can be overwhelming for a first-timer, like Derek Ernst, a native of Clovis, Calif., now living in Las Vegas. Derek has about a year and a half’s worth of experience as a PGA Tour professional now, and has played venues all across the country, from Pebble Beach to Quail Hollow. It was at Quail Hollow, in last year’s Wells Fargo Championship, that he picked up his first PGA Tour victory, thereby punching his ticket for his first trip to the Masters tournament.
Derek’s father, Mark, a risk analyst for a commercial insurance firm in Sacramento, was asked Tuesday morning about how Derek was handling his first appearance at the Masters. He replied, “He is learning his way through it all, but I have a good feeling, I believe he should hang tough this week.”
The 23-year-old UNLV graduate fell prey to first-tee jitters Thursday morning when he teed it up for his first competitive round at Augusta National Golf Club, opening with a double-bogey 6 on the 445-yard par-4 first hole. After back-to-back bogeys at the 3rd and 4th holes, and two more dropped shots on the 7th and 9th holes, Ernst was out in 6-over 42—not an auspicious beginning.
Opening the back nine with another dropped shot, as Derek did at the 10th hole, could have sunk his round, but living up to his father’s faith in his abilities, he came back with pars at the difficult 11th and 12th, the first and second holes in the three-hole stretch of 11, 12, and 13 that are famously known as “Amen Corner”. Ranked 1 and 2, respectively, they played as the toughest par-4 and par-3 on the course today.
A birdie on the par-5 thirteenth hole was a turning point, and after following it with a par at the 14th hole, Ernst rode the momentum. He picked up a pair of shots with back-to-back birdies at 15 and 16, closing out his round with pars at 17 and 18 for a 3-under back nine—his final tally: a 4-over 76.
Derek has ridden a bumpy road since the win in the Wells Fargo Championship last May—he missed nine cuts in what remained of the season after the Wells Fargo win, playing the weekend only three more times and never finishing better than T-44. The 2014 season hasn’t treated him much better; out of the thirteen full-field events he has played in, to date, Ernst has missed another nine cuts, and his best finish was aT-33 at the Honda Classic.
Derek’s father says that his son has had trouble adjusting to the vagabond life of a PGA Tour professional, but that he is starting to get the hang of it. Playing on the Tour is what Derek wants to do—when asked what the victory meant to him after the win at the Wells Fargo Championship last year, he cited the importance of the two-years of fully-exempt status the win brought him, “The money is money, it will come and go, 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.”
There have been bright spots even in the missed cuts. At last week’s Shell Houston Open, Ernst opened with an even-par round of 72, and had a 1-under round going on Friday—right on the cutline—before a bogey-bogey-double bogey meltdown on the last three holes knocked him out of the field for the weekend.
Adjustments to life on the road don’t constitute all of the changes that Ernst is making in relation to his professional life. Equipment changes and swing mechanics tuneups with coach Susie Meyer, a former LPGA player who teaches out of Ventana Canyon Golf & Racquet Club in Tucson, Ariz., have been in the mix as well.
The win at the Wells Fargo Championship last year looms even larger in importance given the young player’s subsequent struggles. Any pro golfer in the lower echelons of the game will tell you that all they need is some money in the bank, and a chance. The financial security afforded by the purse from the Wells Fargo win, and more importantly, the opportunities to play that are opened up by the two-year exemption the win brought with it, are the chance that Derek Ernst needs to push through and show the golf world that his win last May wasn’t a fluke.
Derek tees off for his second round at 9:13 A.M. on Friday. After his 12:42 P.M. Thursday start, the earlier Friday tee time should work in his favor, getting him off the mark with the momentum from the latter part of the previous day’s round fresh in his mind and helping to propel him to a shot at the weekend.
The cut at the Masters is set at the Top 44 and all players within ten strokes of the leader. Currently T-67 and eight shots off the lead, a day of good play—of the type he displayed as he closed out Thursday’s round—could see Derek on the shiny side of the cut, and playing the weekend at the Masters.