For one shining moment one year ago next week, PGA Tour rookie Derek Ernst pulled it all together. In only his ninth start as a PGA Tour professional, the former UNLV Running Rebel took on the cream of the crop of the Tour and the ailing greens at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Quail Hollow Golf Club and came out on top, recording his first PGA Tour victory, the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship.
An early win is a vital boost to the career of a newly-minted pro golfer. Above and beyond the paycheck – and the winner’s share in non-major PGA Tour events hovers in the vicinity of $1 million – are the security that comes from the two-year exemption, and the confidence that winning instills in a player.
Ernst spoke of the importance of the exemption right after the win at Quail Hollow last year, “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.”
Unfortunately, the win last May was somewhat of a blip in the continuum, as the young man from California’s Central Valley wasn’t able to follow it up with more high finishes. The remainder of his 2013 season featured a secession of missed cuts – nine in all. His highest finish was a T-44 at the AT&T National, and he carded only five rounds in the 60s over the remainder of the year.
Consistency has been Ernst’s bugaboo since the Quail Hollow win. It’s not that he doesn’t make birdies; he carded 179 birdies for the 2013 season, and 118 so far this year – it’s the offsetting bogies, many coming from shaky putting, that are keeping Ernst down in the stats.
Ernst’s play this weekend at the Zurich Classic, one week before his return to the site of his 2013 triumph at Quail Hollow, shows promise of an uptick in his game. After reeling off a string of three 1-under 71s, each of which featured either five or six birdies, offset by just one less bogey, per round, Ernst steadied up and turned in his eighth round in the 60s of the 2014 season, carding four birdies with just one offsetting bogey. His 282 total was good for a T-34 finish in the Crescent City, an important boost for his confidence heading into next week’s title defense at Quail Hollow.
Confidence is key in golf, and especially in competitive golf. Sportswriter Dan Jenkins famously said, “The game’s ninety percent mental once you know how to grip the club.”, and many professional players have spoken of the boost that comes once the hurdle of their first win has been overcome. While Derek Ernst may appear not to have taken ownership of his position as a winner on the PGA Tour in the wake of his Quail Hollow victory last year, his T-34 finish in the Zurich Classic may be just the poke his confidence needs as he returns to the scene of his greatest golf achievement to date, and going forward into the remainder of his career.