Golf is hard; tournament golf is really hard – and playing tournament golf for a living is the hardest of all. It’s tough enough standing over a cross-slope 4-footer for birdie in your weekend game with friends, when all that’s depending on the shot is bragging rights, or maybe a round of beers in the clubhouse after the round – but if your livelihood, your paycheck, is depending on your ability to execute shots – hit fairways and make putts – it’s a whole different level of pressure.
Another thing about golf, and something that anyone who has played the game for long enough can relate to, is that sometimes the planets align, your game comes together and everything goes right – and other times, well, other times nothing goes right.
Clovis, CA, native Derek Ernst has experienced the full gamut of possible outcomes in his first year-and-a-bit as a PGA Tour professional. In October 2012 he Monday-qualified for the Frys.com Open, played well, made the cut, and collected his first PGA Tour paycheck – $20,000 – for a T-41 finish. Six weeks later he finished T-19 in the last PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, collecting another (slightly larger) paycheck and, more importantly, partial status on the PGA Tour.
In 2013 the UNLV grad lived the gypsy life of a low-level PGA Tour pro, getting into tournaments when there was room in the field because top-level players weren’t playing, or as an alternate, and traveling to tournaments in coach class airline seats or by rental car. In 2013 Ernst made only seven of twenty-one cuts, and with one notable exception, never finished inside the Top 45 in a tournament.
Luckily for him, that exception was a doozy. In early May, Ernst was the fourth alternate for the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, near Charlotte, North Carolina. A well-liked tournament on a respected course, the field at the Wells Fargo Championship is usually chock-full of top-tier players, leaving little room for partial-status players like Ernst in the field. The course was having problems with its greens, though –weather conditions and a change in course supervision had combined to leave the putting surfaces looking like something you’d find at a $20-a-round muni course (two were resodded the week before the tournament) and a number of top players WD’d, some with dubious excuses.
All told, nine players dropped out of the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship. Ernst was one of the players who benefitted, and it turned out to be more of a lucky stroke than anticipated for the youngster from California’s Central Valley. Jumping into a tie for first place on the first day of the tournament with a 5-under 67, Ernst mixed it up with the likes of Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, and Lee Westwood over the next three days, and was never outside of the top five.
Playing off for the win against England’s David Lynn after Phil Mickelson fell off the pace at the end of the final round, Ernst outplayed the Brit and notched up his first win, earning a $1.2M paycheck, a spot in the field at the 2014 Tournament of Champions and Masters, and more importantly, two years of fully-exempt status on the PGA Tour.
Derek was unable to catch that lightning in a bottle again last year – he made just four cuts after Quail Hollow, missing nine. In three starts in the 2013-2014 season, prior to the Hyundai Tournament of Champions last week, he missed two, the Frys.com and Shriners Hospital tournaments, and finished T61 at the HSBC World Golf Championship event in November. Last week at Kapalua, in a winners-only 30-man field, Ernst struggled again, carding rounds of 79-76-76 on the par-73 course over the first three days. Rallying on the final day of the tournament, he posted a 3-under 70, but was still the only man in the field to post an over-par total – a 9-over 301, nine back of the next-worst score.
Winning in your rookie year on the Tour brings a lot of attention, and it’s unfortunate that, because of that visibility, Ernst’s performance at Kapalua put a target on his back for some members of the national golf media.
Sports Illustrated’s Alan Shipnuck cast Ernst into the “Zero” stack in his weekly “Heroes and Zeroes” column on the magazines Golf.com website, writing “Hey, I know it’s a working vacation, but dude didn’t break 70 all week and finished DFL. Of course, he still “earned” $61,000, so maybe the joke’s on us.”
Golf Digest’s Alex Myers mentioned Ernst in his every-Tuesday GolfDigest.com column “The Grind”, writing: “More and more, it’s looking like Ernst’s win last year at the Wells Fargo Championship – where he was the fourth alternate and the 1,207th ranked player in the world – ranks among the biggest upsets in recent memory.” Myers gave the knife a twist later in the column, under “Random Prop Bets of the Week” with this quip: Derek Ernst will win a PGA Tour event this year: 1,207-to-1 odds.
Myers went on to feature Ernst’s Tournament of Champions performance in a separate column, entitled “Derek Ernst’s Awful Week at Kapalua”, citing performance stats to paint a questioning picture of Ernst’s 2013 win at Quail Hollow: “In 2013, Ernst only ranked 122nd in greens in regulation and 138th in strokes gained putting. That deadly combination placed him 176th (out of 180) in scoring average. How did he win then? Did he just get really, really lucky? The more you examine the numbers, the more Ernst’s win stands out as a statistical outlier.”
As statistically-unlikely as his 2013 Wells Fargo win might have been, the quiet young man from Clovis has a number of things going for him in his quest to forge a career for himself in the pressure-cooker of the PGA Tour:
First, he has the work ethic to push through whatever is affecting his game – he proved that in his four years at UNLV, where he was a four-time All-American and was twice named Mountain West Conference Player of the Year; he also represented the USA on the 2012 Palmer Cup team.
Second, he has the support of his family; parents Dawn & Mark – a loss-control consultant for a Sacramento-area insurance company (Mark was a budding sportswriter in college before opting for a career in the insurance business) – and his two younger sisters, Brianna and Shawna, who are both in school at Mark’s alma mater, Cal State University, Sacramento. The family all come to see Derek play whenever they can.
Finally, he has that magical, perhaps anomalous, week in Charlotte last year, where he put it all together for four days, facing down some of the best in the game, and earned himself the bankroll and the time – two years of fully-exempt status – to pull it all together again, take up a respected position on the PGA Tour – and quiet the snarkier members of the golf media.