Ernst making most of opportunity at Wells Fargo Championship

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Derek Ernst didn't expect to compete in Charlotte, N.C., but he is in the hunt now.
May 02, 2013

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Derek Ernst expected to be playing in the Stadion Classic on the Tour this week. So the PGA TOUR rookie rented a car in New Orleans and headed east.

Before he made it to Georgia, though, the Californian got a call from TOUR headquarters telling the fourth alternate he got in the field for the Wells Fargo Championship when Freddie Jacobson withdrew. So Ernst returned the car in Athens and rented another -- he was told the drop-off fee was another thousand dollars and "we were like, okay, no way" -- for the trip to Charlotte, N.C.

Now that he's settled in the Queen City, Ernst is making the most of the opportunity. The UNLV grad fired a 67 in the first round at Quail Hollow that left him tied for the lead with the 2010 champ and world No. 2 Rory McIlroy, Ryan Moore, Nick Watney, Robert Garrigus, Bruce Summerhays and Nate Smith.

Not bad for someone competing in just his ninth PGA TOUR event. But for Ernst to even be playing the game at the highest level is something of a miracle.

When he was in second grade, Ernst was making a Valentine's Day present for his mom. He had his own tool set, with pint-sized but functional hammers and saws, and his plan was to make a fence that would hold some teddy bears. He was trying to cut through some PVC pipe when the saw got stuck.

"It was about more than halfway through, so I slammed the pipe on the ground," Ernst recalled.

The pipe splintered, the saw went one way and a shard of PVC flew into Ernst's right eye, slicing it down the middle and sending him screaming into the house. His mother rushed her son to a local hospital where he had to have 10 stitches in his eyeball to close the wound.

"So I have like a big blur spot, basically, right down the center of my eye," Ernst said, talking about the remaining scar tissue.

When he covers his left eye, Ernst's vision becomes fuzzy and indistinct. His depth perception in his right isn't the best, either.

"If this eye's not good, then I'm not going to be able to really see at all," Ernst said as he pointed to his left eye. "So I have to make sure that contact that I put in there is fresh and clean every day."

Ernst, though, went on to play collegiately at UNLV, graduating last June with a degree in hotel management. The 22-year-old didn't turn pro until after the U.S. Amateur and still managed to make it through pre-qualifying and all three stages of PGA TOUR q-school. His rookie year has been fun if not financially lucrative -- yet.

"Next thing I know I've got my rookie card and I make the cut at the first at Sony Open, then I started thinking about everything," Ernst said. "Like, wow. Look at all this. There is Tiger and there are all these guys, and I think I just tried to be someone that I wasn't. Now I've kind of realized that and I'm going back to all the things that got me there in the first place."

A week ago in New Orleans, Ernst reunited with the caddie, coach and confidant whom he first met a decade ago at a driving range called Hank's Swank outside Fresno, Calif. At the time Aaron Terry was a 21-year-old teaching pro and Ernst was 10.

"I was just messing around," Ernst recalled. "I wasn't really into golf yet, and he came up and asked my dad if he could give me lessons. I'd meet with him every Sunday at 3 o'clock until dark and we'd do a lot of short game shots."

Terry also caddied for Ernst at amateur events. Once he got his TOUR card, though, Ernst decided the needed a professional caddy. The two long-time friends started working together again prior to the Zurich Classic where Ernst made his second cut of the season and tied for 47th.

Two weeks ago, Ernst also started to work with former LPGA player Susie Meyers, who has coached Michael Thompson, who won his first PGA TOUR event earlier this year at The Honda Classic, since he was 14. But while Ernst thought he was seeking help with his swing, Meyers had other ideas.

"Everyone thinks their swing's messed up if you're not playing well," Ernst said. "So I go there and she doesn't tell me anything about my swing other than how to think around the golf course, and I made the cut last week, and I'm playing well this week and my swing feels better than ever."

Meyers basically told Ernst his mind races too much. So among other things, she taught him what he called "breath-walking" and he used the deep breathing exercise to take his mind off his three-putt bogey at the sixth hole on Thursday.

"I'm just really fast and I'm jittery, and she just tries to calm me down and think about one thing at a time," he said.

Music helps, too. Ernst, who wears a black band around his right wrist with the words "Win the Battle," a Bible verse from Ephesians, in white letters, likes to listen to Christian music, with some country and rock bands thrown into the mix. He plays drums as well as the guitar.

"I think music just calms me down," Ernst said. "I can only think about one thing. I love listening to the lyrics or whatever."

Luckily for him this week, though, Ernst is just focused on golf.