AUGUSTA, Ga. — Derek Ernst, 23, steps to the tee to hit the first Masters’ shot of his life, collects courteous applause and knocks the ball into straw on the left side of the fairway. He hits his second shot into the tree branches and the ball lands closer to the eighth fairway than the first.
There will be no azaleas where Ernst must tread. He puts his foot on the gallery rope and pushes it to the grass so his caddie can join him in the straw. He finishes the hole with a two over par 6.
The golf world might not know Ernst, a 1,000-1 underdog in Augusta. But Charlotte should.
The leaderboard on the final day of the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club features Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood, Nick Watney and Phil Mickelson. On a gray and increasingly rainy afternoon the celebrity golfers began to slip and only Mickelson remains. He leads by a stroke with three holes to play.
Then Mickelson joins his famous friends and slides from the top. Ernst birdies 18 and suddenly the championship is a playoff between Englishman David Lynn and Ernst. It is the first time in the U.S. that Lynn is the better-known golfer and the favorite.
Three days before the Wells Fargo, Ernst is driving a rental car to a Web.Com tournament in Athens, Ga. He’s ranked 1,207 in the world and is the fourth alternate at the Wells Fargo.
But the weather in Charlotte looks bleak and the greens at Quail Hollow are often browns and when golfers began to pull out Ernst gets the a call – he’s in.
He makes par on the first hole of the playoff and wins the tournament and $1,206,000. In a post-victory interview with a radio reporter a Quail Hollow employee in a cart asks, “Which one of you won?”
What did the victory do for you?
“I’m here right now,” Ernst says Thursday. “That’s basically the main thing right there.”
The victory means a two-year exemption. The exemption means he no longer has to drive to Athens in a rented car.
Ernst, who is from Woodland, Calif., and was a star at Nevada Las-Vegas, is as unlikely as any PGA Tour winner in 2013.
Alas, since the victory his career has been in the straw. He’s played 14 tournaments in 2014 and missed the cut in nine, including the last three. He’s finished 30th, 33rd, 61st, 69th and 69th.
“I’m trying to create something good, something that’s going to help me be better in the future,” Ernst says. “I’ve changed almost everything.”
Since Charlotte, he’s changed his agent, his swing coach and his caddie.
Ernst says he’s preparing “not just for tomorrow but for 10 years from now. That’s the only way you’re going to stay out there.”
Maybe the new agent, new swing coach and new caddie will simultaneously kick in and Ernst will win again.
“Hopefully soon,” Ernst says. “I’m just trying to do the right thing.”
It probably won’t be this week. Ernst is all over the course – in the trap, on the hill, in the adjoining fairway. There’s no category for Calories Burned During a Round. But Ernst is no 1,000 to 1 underdog there.
After 10 holes, Ernst is 7-over par, which is not a promo Wells Fargo will use.
But he then birdies 13 and fans shout encouragement and he acknowledges them with a wave and he birdies 15 and he birdies 16 and it’s as if he’s back in Charlotte again and he’s coming for you, Phil. Ernst finishes four over, respectable after his start. He’s tied for 67th with eight others, among them Mickelson.
The arc of Ernst’s career looks like a boa. It’s flat, and then there’s a giant bump, like the boa ate an animal, and then it’s flat again.
But Ernst won more than $1 million for four days of work. He was the best the PGA had to offer in Charlotte, and he proved it.
What will returning to Quail Hollow as defending champ be like?
“It should be awesome,” Ernst says. “But I don’t know. I’ve never done it before.”
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen