When Thursday’s first round of the Wells Fargo Championship was completed, the seven co-leaders had all shot 5-under 67. One of them, as I pointed out in, “Wells Fargo Championship: 1st Round Notes and Derek Ernst,” was Derek Ernst.
Because he was the 4th alternate into the field thanks to Fredrik Jacobson’s withdrawal, I considered awarding him the Popup Player of the Day, for a surprising performance by a less well known player. But I chose not to because there were six other guys and it was “only” a 67. I must be getting jaded by all the great super-low scores these guys shoot every once in a while.
But I have to change my mind because Derek Ernst went all the way the finish line on Sunday and won a playoff with England’s David Lynn. They both finished at 8-under for the tournament and shot “ordinary” 70s to nip Phil Mickelson by a shot. Then Ernst made par on the first playoff hole with Lynn already having marked his nearby bogey putt.
In my defense, at least I had the good sense to include his name in the title of my post and quote him extensively from his post-round interview. If you missed it, you should at least read his interview segments. He’s a charming young man with a great story to tell.
And now he has an even better one to tell:
Yeah, this feeling is unbelievable right now. Just at the beginning of the week not even knowing I was going to be in the field. I was fourth alternate last time I heard, and then a couple people dropped out so I got in. All week long it just felt really — 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 (laughing).
And the story of how he got in is part of his charm:
What was that? Monday morning. I rented a car from New Orleans because I was going to play on the Web.com Tour event this week [in Athens, Georgia, just east of Atlanta] and rented a car. And then got the call when I was driving there, so came straight here instead.
The impressive thing about him was that he had to make birdie on 18 just to get into the playoff. But he wasn’t thinking about winning at that point:
Winning was not on my mind. On 18, I had 190‑something, I don’t know. I hit a 6‑iron and choked up a little bit and hit a draw in there, yeah.
He hit it to 4′ 8.” What made that impressive was that the shot was stoutly uphill to the green, it was raining and it was cold. The broadcast said low 50s with a wind chill of 46.
I was trying to hit it as close as I possibly could, yeah. I knew Dave was at 8, so I didn’t know what Phil was or where he was at. So I was just trying to get tied with David at 8.
And even then he wouldn’t allow himself to think about winning:
Never, really at all. Just kind of if I stuck to my game, then whatever happened, happened. If I win, great. If I got 10th, great. I just stuck with my own game.
In Thursday’s interview he admitted to being fidgety — his mind racing all over the place — and that he had just learned a deep breathing technique from his new coach to help him stay in the present and he felt that a slow-play weather day worked to his advantage:
Yeah, for sure, because you’re trying to dry your hands off, you’re trying to dry the club off and everything and play becomes a little bit slower too. So I think for me, it kind of worked in my favor just because I’m such a fast player that it kind of slowed me down a little bit, yeah, for sure.
The last three holes of the Quail Hollow Golf Club are so difficult under the pressure of tournament play that they have been dubbed, “The Green Mile.” And his new process of just focusing on getting from Point A to Point B paid off to the tune of $1,206,000:
I stuck to the process. 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.
When he was attending UNLV (graduating with a degree in Hotel Management) he never really thought much about being ready for the Tour:
I don’t think like that. I don’t think far ahead that far. I live day by day, I guess, and I just try to do the best I can. I’ve got to practice every day, and then whatever comes from that hard work comes from it. So right now, I’ve got this [proof of his readiness].
His new mental coach, Susie Meyers — referred to her by his agent, he thought she was a swing coach — helped him to become conscious of his flighty mind and helped him to see that there weren’t problems with his swing, there were problems getting out of his own way:
Yeah, for sure. And that’s what was the problem in the beginning of the year is I’m trying to control everything. Like, for example, today, the last three holes I didn’t think about anything other than the next shot. Where, maybe in the first couple months I would. I’d be like okay, I’ve got to do this on this hole. I’ve got to do this on the next hole, and then maybe I’ll have a chance. And then you just completely screw with your mind. So that’s what I mean by the process and getting out of your own way.
Here is how important that searing focus is. When he got to his tee shot out in the fairway during the playoff, he discovered that he was much further back. It was still raining and couldn’t have been any warmer:
Yeah, on 18, on the playoff hole I was trying to hit the very right side of the green [with the pin on the left side]. I had like 219 to the pin, so I was just trying to stay right and I pulled it a little bit.
He hit a 3-iron and it was so free and easy and effortless, it looked like he was swinging a middle iron again. The ball headed straight toward the middle of the green and ended up just under the hole for an easy par and his first win.
And that was the reason that Derek Ernst was retroactively awarded the Popup Player of the Day.