CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A year ago, when Rickie Fowler birdied the first hole of a playoff to win the Wells Fargo Championship, Derek Ernst was winding down out the final days of his senior year at UNLV.
Ernst got his degree in hotel management but he didn't exactly plan to put that sheepskin to use. The Californian wanted to make his living playing golf, and he took the long road to the PGA TOUR, pre-qualifying and then surviving all three stages of the final qualifying school that would provide direct access to the PGA TOUR to get his card.
On Sunday, cold and completely drenched but equally determined, Ernst won in his eighth start as a PGA TOUR member -- making birdie on the final hole at Quail Hollow and beating David Lynn with a par on the first hole of sudden death. The win opened up a world of opportunity for the 22-year-old who now has job security for the next 31 months.
"The money is money, it will come and go," said Ernst, who moved from 196th to 32nd in the FedExCup. "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."
Oh, and instead of heading home to Las Vegas for some R&R and a lesson with his coach, Ernst will be competing against the best in the game at in THE PLAYERS Championship, the PGA TOUR's flagship event that begins on Thursday at TPC Sawgrass.
"It's a little sunk in, but I'm sure in a couple days it will be even more unbelievable than it is right now," Ernst said with a great big grin.
Truth be told, Ernst didn't even expect to be playing in Charlotte this week. Fresh off his best finish of the season, a tie for 47th that netted him a mere 18.5 FedExCup points and just over $16,000, Ernst was driving his rental car toward Athens, Ga., where the Web.com Tour was holding its Stadion Classic at UGA.
He got a phone call from PGA TOUR headquarters, though, telling him that Freddie Jacobsen had withdrawn from the Wells Fargo Championship and he was in. Six days later, Ernst became the first alternate to win a PGA TOUR event since Wes Short Jr. won the Michelin Championship back in 2005.
Ernst was also the fourth first-time winner in the last six Wells Fargo Championships -- joining Anthony Kim, who was 21 when he won in 2008; Rory McIlroy (21 in 2010) and Rickie Fowler (23 last year).
He's the second rookie and the youngest player to win on TOUR this season.
The 39-year-old Lynn, who played with Ernst on Sunday, said he'd never heard of the man who ranked 1,207th in the world before the two shook hands Sunday on the first tee. "But he played super," the Englishman was quick to add and the stats bore out those words. Ernst ranked third in greens in regulation, ninth in driving distance, 11th in strokes-gained putting and 13th in driving accuracy.
Not to mention, he played the final three holes at Quail Hollow, which ranked as the second-toughest finishing stretch on the PGA TOUR last year, in 2 under and his 4-foot birdie on the 72nd hole was one of just four made there all day.
"I stuck to the process," said Ernst, who has been working with former LPGA pro Susie Meyers on the mental side of course management for about two weeks now. "I didn't think about what I had to do or what I didn't do. I just thought about each shot. It was: what's next? What is the next one? How am I going to get this next one in the hole, so that was big."
Phil Mickelson, for one, should have been so lucky. He held the lead as he came to the punishing stretch that has earned the nickname of "The Green Mile" but fell back into a tie with Ernst and Lynn when he missed a 5-footer for par at the 16th, then slipped one behind with another bogey at No. 17, a hole where he is 14 over for the 40 times he's played it.
Ernst and Lynn were waiting on the practice green when Mickelson made his last ditch bid for a tying birdie on the 18th hole.
"You could hear everyone yelling 'get in, get in; from over there, and then you heard a little bit of 'ohs,'" Ernst said. "So right as soon as that happened, they said 'Let's go.'"
Ernst put his second shot in the playoff safely on the green while Lynn was flirting with the creek that runs down the left side of the fairway not once, but twice. He says he lives to have fun -- "If you're not enjoying it, you're not going to win I don't think," Ernst explained -- and nothing was better than that tap-in par that gave the rookie his first victory since he won the ASU Thunderbird 13 months ago.
"This feeling is unbelievable right now," he said. "Just at the beginning of the week not even knowing I was going to be in the field. ... All week long my swing felt good, mental game was good. The big thing was, what I said all week long is, I got out of my own way, and it paid off for now."