Derek Ernst is a winner on the US PGA Tour, and that's big news for his family back in the central California town of Clovis, Calif., his buddies from UNLV who nicknamed him "Stripes" for his consistent contact and for the staff at the Foster's Freeze in Clovis who used to serve Ernst and his girlfriend the "Reese's Twister" when they went on nightly ice cream runs in their hometown.
Outside of that crew, nobody knew who Ernst was prior to his big day at Quail Hollow.
Oh, the things a golf writer can learn when researching the life and times of a 22-year-old, quick-swinging bomber ranked 1,207th in the world. Ernst stunned the golf world with a fairytale-like win over a leaderboard that included Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy. What do we know of the guy? Turns out Ernst likes ice cream. Reporters covering his runner-up finish at the 2011 US.Amateur Public Links at Bandon Dunes unearthed that, along with an amazing story about getting 10 stitches in his eye as a second grader when he had an accident with a sharp object while making his Mom a present, leading to consistently blurry vision in one eye. Crazy, but true.
Other than that, the kid's a cipher, a mystery man who appeared on our Sunday TVs from Quail Hollow almost like a hoax. Nobody had a clue how to process it. Rules officials probably were on walkie-talkies, wondering if they should check his ID. Even the guy he beat in the play-off with a par on the 18th hole, England's David Lynn, said afterwards: "I'd never heard of him." Luke Donald chimed in on Twitter: "Never heard of Ernst before this week. Shows how deep the fields on the US PGA Tour are. Welcome to the winner's circle. #goodforhim"
The story makes other first-time winners on Tour this year – Russell Henley, Billy Horschel, Kevin Streelman – look positively bland. To think, Ernst only got a Wonka golden ticket to play as fourth alternate after a slew of big-name players walked away from Quail Hollow because the greens were atrocious. To say the greens resembled a lunar landscape is an insult to lunar landscapes, which probably feature smoother rolls.
Ernst was ready to play in a Web.com event in Georgia, but got the call to The Show. He didn't care if the greens at Quail Hollow looked like Candlestick Park's sloppy turf from a winter NFL playoff game. To him, they were carpets of splendor. After battling his way through four (!) stages of Q-School to get his card, every PGA Tour invite was gold-plated. Still, he'd yet to find his comfort zone, missing five of seven cuts and boasting a high finish of tie-47th at New Orleans last week.
He had a rental car in Georgia, but had to swap it out before driving to North Carolina, lest he incur a $1,000 location fee. That was six days ago. Today, he's hitting "refresh" on his online checking account every five minutes to stare at the new addition to his new account balance – $1,200,000 for the win at Quail Hollow.
Once he got to Charlotte, the talent that made him a four-time All-American at UNLV finally burst through. Rounds of 67, 71 and 72 put him in position on Sunday, but still, nobody noticed. Why would they? CBS came on the air with Ernst three shots behind Mickelson, and Jim Nantz did his best to re-emphasize the big-name leaderboard of Lefty, Rory and Lee. That Watney was in the mix, too, was an interesting twist – a fellow Californian who played college golf at Fresno State, just miles from Ernst's childhood home.
And then, while Mickelson made unforgivable bogeys on 16 and 17; while Rory double-bogeyed the 12th hole; while Westwood bogeyed 12, 13 and 17 … Derek Ernst went on a butt-kicking spree. He made no bogeys on his back nine, carving birdie on No. 11, on the par-5 15th and, most memorably, the 18th hole, his 72nd of the week.
A notorious beast of a closing hole, the 478-yard par-4 18th has ruined many a day. Not Ernst's. He smoked a driver, then pulled 6-iron from 192, choked down, and hit the prettiest little draw to four feet you'd ever want to see. He made the putt for a birdie and final round 70 to force a playoff with Lynn and leave Lefty in the dust. We should also note Ernst did so without leaning his abdomen on a putter. What do you know? A young kid with a real putter.
By then, Ernst was possessed. He didn't hesitate to repeat that swing with driver on the play-off hole, then hit a bold 3-iron to 15 feet and darn near jar the birdie putt before kicking in his par to beat Lynn.
These were profoundly unafraid golf swings, reminiscent of Streelman's work on the par-3s down the stretch at Innisbrook, or Horschel's work on the greens at TPC Louisiana. These new winners have some gumption.
How in the name of Ben Curtis did something like this happen? Donald's tweet provides one theory – the depth of talent on Tour these days is legitimate. There's also the fact that sports always provides unexpected magic.
Derek Ernst, welcome to fame. Be sure to keep that golf swing when you check in at this week's Players Championship, this year's US PGA Championship, next year's Maui Tournament of Champions and, oh yeah, Augusta National next April. They have ice cream in the grill room there, too. Get some on your peach cobbler.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
68-67-73-73 – 7-under 281, Phil Mickelson, third place, PGA Tour Wells Fargo Championship, Quail Hollow Club, Charlotte, N.C.
I don't want to overstate this, because the guy won at Phoenix this year and finished third at Doral, and he's Lefty, after all.
But is Phil starting to look a little old out there?
Again, not pressing the panic button. Just observing. He turns 43 next month, and when contrasted against the lean-and-mean 22-year-old game of Ernst, you start to think: Holy heck, Lefty turned pro before some of these guys learned to walk.
And yes, we've seen Mickelson blow leads before. (Winged Foot, coughcough, Winged Foot.) The breakdown was just a startling reminder of his occasional frailty. This time, it was back-to-back bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes to tumble from the outright lead at 9-under to signing a scorecard for 7-under to watching an Ernst-Lynn playoff.
Mickelson said afterward he was "bummed out" and thought he had the tournament under control. Yes, and yes. Now he heads to the Players Championship to take on an elite field. Last time we saw him versus an elite field was the Masters – where he finished tied-54th, his worst finish at Augusta National since missing the cut in 1997.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
In fact, let's stay on this topic.
I was thinking it would be really fun to see Mickelson and Ernst tangling in a play-off: Two Californians going at it, one who can remember when MTV showed music videos; the other who thinks anybody who watches TV and doesn't stream video on their smart phone is a total loser.
It would be a clash of eras and a clash of résumés; Phil bringing the worldwide fame and glamour; Ernst bringing the Clovis Foster's Freeze fan club.
But it would require Mickelson to make par on the 17th hole, a brutal par-3 over water in the rain. Surely, though, a vet like Lefty could make a "3," right?
Instead, Mickelson tugged a 9-iron and missed the green right. That left him a very difficult lag putt, and his leave of 12 feet exemplified said difficulty. On those Quail Hollow greens, no way was Mickelson making the par putt from that far out, and the bogey was in the books. He'd miss the playoff by one stroke.
So, in the interest of an Ernst-Mickelson smackdown, a California clash in the Carolinas, let's go back out to the 17th tee, remind Lefty of the impending drama with the kid and … give that man a mulligan!
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Tiger Woods hasn't played on the Tour since finishing in a tie for fourth at the Masters but he will play at TPC Sawgrass this week, part of a Players Championship extravaganza that will feature all 30 of the world's top 30-ranked players. We know he's taking it seriously, because his main squeeze Lindsey Vonn made a red-carpet appearance at a gala last week and, asked where her dude Tiger was, answered: "He's practising."
He better be. Sawgrass has been a house of horrors for Tiger of late – W/Ds in 2010 and 2011, and a tie-40th last year.
Rory will be there, too, after yet another disappointing weekend – back-to-back 73s that led to a tie-10th. He tweeted a picture of himself in his private jet flying home, prominently featuring his lime green Nikes on the leather seat in the photo. As a Rory fan, I didn't find any of it encouraging.
Meanwhile, the locker room at Sawgrass will have a spot for Derek Ernst. He should take his rental car from North Carolina down to Jacksonville for the drop-off and leave the radio on at full blast as he pulls in, just to show what a suddenly new baller he is.