Derek Ernst: Taking a Leap of Faith

The most notable thing Deek Ernst has done in his year and a half on the PGA Tour was to have won last year’s Wells Fargo Championship played at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina. Unfortunately, the second most notable thing that he has done over that same time period is to miss 24 of 37 cuts.

But the win gave him more freedom than the $1.2 million he earned, it gave him the accompanying two-year exemption to overhaul his swing…maybe, more like, overhaul his life:

“I changed a lot of things since I won.  I knew I had that two‑year exemption so I was like, okay, I want to prepare myself for longevity out here on the Tour.  I got a new agent, a trainer, I put on 20 pounds since I won last year, new swing coach, new caddy.”

“I mean, I basically cleaned house with everything.  So since I added those 20 pounds, my swing changed a little bit, my feel, my touch has changed around the greens and I’m just getting into it again with, you know, getting comfortable with my body, basically.”

“But it’s been tough, you know.  It ain’t gonna be easy.  I knew that going into it, but I’ve been working with my psychologist.  This is what it is, you just gotta pull through.”

There are two sides to this sort of revolutionary change. On the one hand, you don’t trust your swing just yet, so you play poorly. On the other, you know that you’ve made the changes for the right reasons, you’ve selected the best coach at the time and you know that it will all work out. You wouldn’t have risked it otherwise. You have to keep looking at the latter instead of the former.

I suppose there are any number of players for whom the change didn’t quite work out — Mike Weir comes to mind — but that could just as well have come from looking at how poorly you’re playing rather than looking forward to how good you will. Trust can be a very delicate thing.

For Ernst, compared to last year when he won, he is way more confident, even though he continues to be mired in missed cuts and low finishes:

“Oh, yeah, I was worse coming in [last year].  I feel like I’m way better now than I was when I won this tournament last year.”

When you look at the potential risks, you sometimes wonder why a player would go down that road. How good a reason would it have to be to take that risk? Ernst had a very good reason:

“Like I said, I wanted to prepare for longevity out here on Tour.  I was 22 when I won, I’m 23 now, I want to be out here until I’m 50, so I wanted to make the changes so I can be out here until I’m 50 and be competing every week.”

Ricky Fowler seems to have locked up his longevity with the work he’s been doing with Butch Harmon. There’s much less strain on his back the way he’s swinging the club now.

Ernst sees that possibility for himself too:

“Yeah, I wanted to get better.  Tiger changed his swing in 2000, even though he was winning everything.  You want to get better no matter what you’re doing.  I felt I needed to make the changes that I did, and I’ll start seeing them pay off in the next couple years I think.”

One reporter pointed out that Rocco Mediate had once said that after you win, you shouldn’t change anything except perhaps your underwear. That certainly sounds like something Rooco would say. The reporter went on to wonder if Ernst had any regrets over the change process?

“I don’t regret anything I’ve done in my whole life, because if you look back and regret something then you did it wrong, but everything I do, I will never, ever regret it.”

At first blush, this sounds pretty absolutist. In a world where “wrong” doesn’t exist, mistakes are extremely valuable learning experiences because they are so starkly different than what you were trying to achieve. Mistakes can be corrected; wrong can be forever.

From a spiritual perspective, mistakes are supposed to happen. They take you to where you’re supposed to be next. Mistakes are all part of the human experience. So in that sense, I think that’s what Ernst meant about having no regrets.

One reporter wondered about how to battle off the frustrations of not being able to post competitive results?

“You don’t focus on the results; you focus on the process.  Take it one day at a time.  If you’re getting 1% better every day then you’re making the right moves.  Yeah, the results haven’t been there, but I’m 23 years old I’m going to learn from my mistakes and move on.”

Had he planned to make these change all along or was it the win that was the trigger?

“I knew the things I needed to do but it helped me — you know if I didn’t win and I had the rest of the year to try and get top‑125 so I can keep my card, obviously things would have been different.  I would have prepared for a more results‑driven finish, because I needed to get top‑125 so I could keep my card.”

“But once that I knew I was in and I had two years, I was like, okay, let’s make some changes because I have all this year and next year.  And next year is the big year, but this year I’m using for a big learning year, learn as much as I can, make the changes that are necessary and hopefully it’s going to prepare me to be a better player in the future.”

So all in all, it looks like he’s in a good place as he continues working his way to the next chapter in his golf life. And it will have been a good learning experience on dealing with change and adversity. Because there will be many more chapters to come. At least that’s the way golf tends to be for most of us.

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