CHARLOTTE, N.C. – At one point on Sunday morning, the Wells Fargo Championship leaderboard looked suspiciously like that of a major championship. Phil Mickelson was leading the pack, while battle-tested names such as Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Nick Watney and Robert Karlsson lingered close behind. It was an important upturn in momentum for a tournament which had appeared snake-bitten right from the start.
On a Quail Hollow course afflicted with greens that looked straight out of your favorite daily-fee muni, several top players withdrew prior to the opening round with varying degrees of excuses. As if that weren’t enough, a threatening Sunday afternoon storm forced PGA Tour officials to move up tee times to early morning in hopes of simply completing the event before the weekend was over.
It would be an understatement to say they needed a little luck around here. But there it was – in the form of these elite-level talents contending for a title in what can best be described as typical Open Championship-type conditions. At least the event appeared to be salvaged by the big names, validation for a tournament which has earned a reputation as one of the PGA Tour’s best since its inception a decade ago.
And then … everything changed.
Westwood, who was dealing with a chest infection throughout the week, bogeyed three of his last seven holes. McIlroy continued his recent epidemic of poor putting. Watney never carded a single birdie. Karlsson never quite got close enough.
Then there was Mickelson, who appeared in control heading to the so-called Green Mile, this course’s treacherous three-hole closing stretch. He bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes, then missed a 20-foot birdie attempt long and left on 18 that would have put him into a playoff.
“I'm pretty bummed out,” he said afterward. “I would have liked to have won this one. I felt like I was in control and I let it slip away there the last few holes, so it was disappointing.”
When the picture cleared through the unleashing skies, it showed little-known 22-year-old Q-School graduate Derek Ernst going to extra holes against European Tour emigrant David Lynn. Ernst and Lynn. It sounds more like an accounting firm than a PGA Tour playoff.
At once apparently analyzing both the struggles of those other players and his chances in the upcoming playoff, Lynn contended, “Anything can happen.” Not to be outdone, Ernst added, “It's anyone's game.”
As it turns out, they were both right.
With a par on the first extra hole, it was Ernst who claimed his first victory in the very definition of both sayings, “Anything can happen” and “It’s anyone’s game.” A graduate of UNLV last year, he was making his ninth career PGA Tour start, ranked 1,207th in the world and had amassed a grand total of 28 FedEx Cup points prior to the week, mostly thanks to a season-best T-47 last week in New Orleans.
In the aftermath of his victory, Ernst’s coolness recalled another old saying: “Act like you’ve been there before.” He was neither overwhelmed by the moment nor did he seem overly excited, almost taking on the attitude of a player who expected to win.
When asked if it was daunting to see those names of the elite players alongside his on the leaderboard, he said, “They're up there every week, so no, not really.” When asked at what point he started thinking about winning, he said, “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.”
Maybe it was poetic justice, both for Ernst and the tournament.
As the fourth alternate entering the week, he was the beneficiary of those aforementioned top players withdrawing with varying degrees of excuses. Ernst was already on his way to Athens, Ga., on Monday for this week’s Web.com Tour event when he got the call that he was in the field.
On a week when seemingly nothing would go right for the good folks who run the Wells Fargo, though, Ernst’s name atop the leaderboard shouldn’t be viewed as another cloud drizzling down on their parade. The tournament’s last six champions have had an average age of 24.2 at the time of their victories, with four of them 23 or younger and 2011 champion Lucas Glover topping out as the old man in the group at 31.
At an event marred by patchy greens and withdrawals and poor weather, it almost makes perfect sense that players such as Mickelson and Westwood and McIlroy would falter in Sunday’s final round. This was the week that never went according to plan. And a young kid named Derek Ernst fit that script perfectly.