The craziest part is that Derek Ernst was never even supposed to be at the Wells Fargo Championship.
After a mediocre finish at last year’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Ernst headed to the airport. He was the fourth alternate for the TOUR’s annual stop at Quail Hollow, so he took the pessimist’s route, grabbed a rental car and headed to Athens, Ga., where he planned to tee it up on the Web.com Tour. On the way, Ernst got the call that Freddie Jacobson had withdrawn and that he would need to reroute his GPS for Charlotte.
Even though he was in the field, Ernst wasn’t really supposed to contend. Sure, he shot an opening-round 67. But this was a guy who was fresh out of college, fresh out of Q-School and fresh off a stretch of five of six cuts missed. His world ranking had four digits in it for crying out loud.
He definitely wasn’t supposed to be the last man standing on Sunday. Nick Watney shared the lead with Phil Mickelson through 54 holes and Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy were within striking distance.
But Ernst, a then-22-year-old from Clovis, Calif., defeated David Lynn in a playoff, became a PGA TOUR winner, and sent the golf world Googling.
He went on to miss 11 of his next 15 cuts and he still hasn’t recorded so much as a top-25 finish since.
He wasn’t supposed to do that either.
No. 1,207 in the Official World Ranking, Ernst is the 330th-ranked American. No 2013 TOUR winner has ranked outside the top 300 overall.— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 5, 2013
So what was it about that week at Quail Hollow? Even Ernst isn’t quite sure. He still feels like he didn’t even play his best golf.
One thing he remembers is that the leaderboard’s star power didn’t affect him the way you might think it would a 22-year-old rookie. As he likes to say, the ball has no idea who he is or, more importantly, who they are.
“It really didn’t faze me for some reason,” he said. “I just wanted to win so bad that I wasn’t going to let anything else happen. I think that’s how I birdied 18 to get into the playoff.”
Of course there are far more positives, but a few downsides attach themselves to a PGA TOUR win. People start to remember a name when they see it at the top of the leaderboard, but it looks a little bolder when they see it at the bottom.
In the 29 events since Ernst’s win at Quail Hollow, he hasn’t recorded a top-30 finish (well, he finished 30th at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but that was in a field of 30). In 19 of those starts he’s missed the weekend.
It’s clear that the results, and talking about them, can be frustrating.
“He’s a great player and he should be frustrated,” said swing coach Greg LaBelle (More on him in a second).
A few things changed immediately after Ernst’s win. Some were visible, but the big ones were intangible.
“I actually had a few fans afterward, so that was cool,” he said with a laugh. “Before, not one person would come out and watch me play.”
But as Ernst came back to Earth after his victory, he started to look around and realized something. He had one win under his belt, but as he puts it, he wasn’t built for long-term success on the PGA TOUR. He wasn’t confident in the team that was around him. So, he essentially blew it up and started over. Ernst hired a swing coach (LaBelle, from the Butch Harmon School in Las Vegas), a new agent, a new caddie (Jeff King), a new trainer and more. You’d never guess it by looking at him, but he’s put on nearly 30 pounds since his win a year ago.
“I weighed 150 pounds when I won, now I weigh 177,” Ernst said. “I even got up to 184. I just started taking one protein shake a day instead of two.”
Ernst hears the concerns you’re feeling right now. He’s hardly the first to make these types of changes at a young age, and the story doesn’t always have a happy ending. But with his two-year exemption locked down, Ernst felt he had to start rebuilding sooner than later.
“For me to be here in 20, 30 years, I had to change some things,” he said confidently. “There have been plenty of people who say, ‘Oh, you didn’t play well the last year.’ Good thing I’m only 23 and I have, like 30 of them left.”
Inside the PGA TOUR
Derek Ernst overcomes adversity on PGA TOUR
Inside the PGA TOUR
Derek Ernst overcomes adversity on PGA TOUR
Ernst and LaBelle started working together about six months ago, finding each other through two mutual friends, Ernst’s new agent Mike Chism and a childhood and UNLV friend, Connor Green. Ernst was anxious to start rebuilding his team and LaBelle was also looking forward to starting from scratch.
“The biggest thing, right away, was just getting his fundamentals back,” LaBelle said. “Setup, alignment, posture, they were all kind of out of whack.”
LaBelle’s goal was not to fundamentally change Ernst’s golf swing, but instead to help him better understand what makes it work.
“I don’t believe in some sort of ‘swing key’ magic,” LaBelle said. “Golf is complicated enough. You’ve got a guy who has an extreme amount of talent and we’re just trying to take the guesswork out for him.”
In that way, LaBelle echoes the thinking of Harmon, his mentor since 1998. If Ernst’s focus is longevity on TOUR, he should be happy to see that one of LaBelle’s most prominent students is Corey Pavin.
Ernst finished last season No. 69 on TOUR in total driving. This season, he’s ranked No. 1. He’s back to driving the ball the way he did in college, when he hit the middle of so many fairways that he earned the nickname Stripes.
But there’s another stat that’s been looming over Ernst’s struggles the past year. As good as his driving has been, he still ranks No. 200 in strokes gained-putting. He’s now in the process of doing everything he can think of to fix it.
“He doesn’t have any technical issues with his putter, he’s cleaned those up,” LaBelle said. “He had some setup issues, but now he’s pretty clean.”
Ernst finally had some good news on the greens last week in New Orleans, where he ranked 20th for the week in strokes gained-putting and shot four rounds under par for the first time in his PGA TOUR career. To get some positive vibes on the putting surfaces, he switched back to an old putter, the one with which he won college tournaments and advanced through all four stages of Q-School.
The missing variable in the putting equation now is confidence, which is not just knowing that you can hole putts, but actually proving it to yourself and seeing them drop.
“That’s finally starting to happen,” LaBelle said. “That’s why they stay late every night, just so they can see a few putts go in.”
That’s what Ernst was doing at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard this year. On Wednesday, he was the last player on the property, chipping and putting balls until it was too dark to see.
“The kid is not afraid to work,” LaBelle said with a laugh when he heard the story. “That’s what I’m excited to see. That drive, effort and ability to focus. If you have that and you can do the right things with it, it’s a great combination.”
Ernst says it feels like three days since he won in Charlotte, possibly because there haven’t been many other tournaments worth remembering. He's happy to be back, even though people keep calling him "David."
There’s no doubt that it’s tough to back up a win on the PGA TOUR, especially at a young age. As LaBelle says, you’re no longer playing against the country’s 10 all-Americans, you’re playing against 25 years’ worth.
But Ernst is moving ahead, slowly adjusting to each change and getting more comfortable with life on the PGA TOUR. This week in Charlotte, he has his childhood friend Aaron Terry back on the bag, the same caddie with which he won last year. He doesn’t know what to expect this week at Quail Hollow, after all, he’s never been a defending champion. But he’s not treating the week any differently. It’s another step in his plan toward a future where he’s holing putts and winning tournaments.
It’s easy to focus on the days ahead when the present is producing frustrating results. But to help him through this year’s changes and struggles, Ernst has a silver trophy and a navy jacket to remind him that he’s good enough to compete at the highest level.
“I beat Rory, Lee Westwood, Phil, all these guys out there,” he said. “That kind of gives me hope. That’s why I come out every day and give it all I’ve got. Pretty soon I’ll be back there again.”