Derek Ernst didn’t come out of nowhere to win the Wells Fargo Championship.
He actually was driving a rental car toward Athens, Georgia, the fourth alternate who figured he might as well spend the week playing in the minor leagues.
He wound up a playoff winner at Quail Hollow with a game that wins anywhere.
It’s easy to get caught up in the elements that make his victory Sunday so amazing.
Ernst is a 22-year-old rookie who was finishing up at UNLV at this time a year ago. He was No. 1,207 in the world ranking, having played only eight PGA Tour events, one of them last year when he earned a spot through Monday qualifying. He had made only two cuts this year, which led to being the fourth alternate.
Players like Ernst don’t typically get into a tournament like the Wells Fargo Championship. But there was so much talk about the shabby shape of the greens — and they were worse than players were told — that several players decided not to play.
Ernst got the phone call Monday that he was in at Quail Hollow, so he drove on to Athens to return his rental car — a $1,000 drop-off fee sounded like a lot of money at the time — and pick up another one and head to Charlotte.
The rest of the week went by so quickly. The opening round of 67. Staying in the mix over the next two days in cold weather. Overlooked on Sunday in the cold rain, mainly because of the names at the top of the leader board — Phil Mickelson, Nick Watney, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood among them.
All of them had their issues on the back nine, none worse than Mickelson, who had a one-shot lead until bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes that cost him. Ernst not only played bogey-free on the back nine and shot 33, he saved his best for the final hole.
One shot behind David Lynn of England, who was in the same group, Ernst choked down on a 6-iron from 192 yards and hit a draw that dropped four feet from the cup for a birdie. It was one of only four birdies on the 18th hole in the final round, and this gave him a 2-under 70 and a spot in the playoff with Lynn, who also had a 70.
“I was trying to hit it as close as I possibly could,” Ernst said.
Under the circumstances, his shot in the playoff was just as good, even if Ernst concedes to being a little lucky. Lynn was in trouble off the tee, on the bank of a creek with the ball well above his feet. Ernst hit a 3-iron that settled 15 feet left of the cup.
“I pulled it a little bit,” he said with a grin.
No matter. Lynn was thinking of laying up and trying to make par from short of the green until he saw Ernst’s shot. That forced him to take a hybrid, and he put that in the right bunker. His shot out of the wet sand sailed over the green and nearly went into the creek. By then, the tournament effectively was over. Lynn chipped on to 5 feet and never had to putt for bogey after Ernst’s birdie putt caught the lip and he tapped in.
For starters, the victory at Quail Hollow gets him into The Players Championship next week. He qualifies for two World Golf Championships, the PGA Championship, the Tournament of Champions next year at Kapalua and the Masters next April. No need to get another rental car for the drive to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Along with a two-year exemption on tour, Ernst won just over $1.2 million.
Of the rookies on tour this year, Ernst probably got the least amount of attention. He grew up in the central valley of California, and he’s lucky to be playing golf. As a young boy, he was building his mother a Valentine’s Day present with his junior tool set when a piece of plastic pipe ricocheted toward his face and sliced into his right eye ball. He had to get 10 stitches, and still has blurred vision. He’s fidgety and thinks too far ahead instead of worrying about the next shot. He works with Susie Meyers, who helps him with course management and proper thinking.
“I’ve never heard of him,” Lynn said. “He’s a nice player. He said he was 180th on the FedEx Cup list when we were chatting on the way around. He played super. I mean, he could have won it quite easily 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.”
Not only did Ernst shoot 33 on the back nine, he missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 14th hole after nearly driving the green, and a 6-foot birdie putt on the 16th. He also made a few tough par putts.
That’s what Mickelson failed to do.
Closing in on a victory he wanted dearly at Quail Hollow, Mickelson took a one-shot lead with a tap-in birdie on the 14th, and he was poised to widen his lead on the par-5 15th. His second shot came up just short and into the bunker, but Mickelson could only blast that out to 12 feet and he left the birdie putt short. That proved costly.
His chip was too strong on the 16th and he missed the 6-foot par putt to fall into a three-way tie. At that point, Ernst and Lynn had finished at 8-under 280. Then, Mickelson three-putted from 65 feet just off the green, leaving the first putt about 8 feet short. He suddenly needed birdie on the 18th to join the playoff, and his 20-foot attempt narrowly missed.
“I’m pretty bummed out,” Mickelson said. “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 difficult holes, so it would have been nice to have that. There is just no excuse,’ he said. ‘It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary or difficult. I should have made par.”
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