Gainey, Ernst struggling to follow up breakthrough wins

By Will GrayFebruary 27, 2014, 8:54 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Congratulations. You’ve made it.

Fans have applauded your final putt. Fellow pros have offered congratulations. Trophy engravers have confirmed the spelling of your name, and your playing schedule just got an immediate makeover.

You’ve won a tournament on the PGA Tour. Take a minute to soak it all in.

Once the dust settles, though, a thought may creep into your mind.

Now what?

For Tommy Gainey and Derek Ernst, who both carded rounds of 4-under 66 Thursday at the Honda Classic, following up a breakthrough victory has proven difficult.

Honda Classic: Articles, videos and photos

At the conclusion of the 2012 season, Gainey elevated his status beyond that of a “Big Break” alumnus, or a player known for wearing two gloves. He captured the McGladrey Classic that November, and did so in impressive fashion – firing a final-round 60 to erase a seven-shot deficit.

The victory earned him a trip to Kapalua two months later for the 2013 Hyundai Tournament of Champions, where he promptly tied for sixth. That result, though, still serves as the only top-10 finish for Gainey in 39 starts since his triumph at Sea Island.

The 38-year-old journeyman is the first to admit that much of his struggles emanated from within.

“I put more pressure on myself after McGladrey,” Gainey said. “That final round, when I shot what I shot ... you feel like you can win any tournament.”

Imbued with confidence, Gainey believed that his maiden title would serve as a stepping stone toward the next stage in his career.

“I felt like getting the first one would be tough, because it took me 105 tournaments to get the first one. I felt like it shouldn’t take me that long to get the second one.”

Instead, Gainey has spent much of the past 15 months simply trying to make the weekend. He missed the cut in half of his 28 starts last season, and his slump continues. Gainey has made the cut only twice in 10 starts during the 2013-14 season, including early exits at five straight events during the West Coast swing.

“When you put too much pressure on yourself, things like that can happen.”

A return to the Sunshine State couldn’t have come sooner. A native of South Carolina, Gainey grew up playing on Bermuda grass, which could be a reason why he struggled with poa annua greens in California. This week, he says, the pressure is off as he looks to return to the form that earned him his breakthrough win.

“I learned a lesson,” he said. “Now I’m just trying to have more fun, because it could be worse. I’ve got the best job in the world, so I’m just trying to enjoy it.”

Ernst was only months removed from earning his PGA Tour card at Q-School when he burst onto the scene last May, capturing the Wells Fargo Championship in a rainy playoff over David Lynn at Quail Hollow.

The win netted the 23-year-old a spot in The Players Championship the following week, where Ernst admits his perception among his peers received a quick overhaul.

“That’s where it was like, ‘Bam.’ People actually know who I am,” said Ernst, who made four birdies and an eagle Thursday at PGA National.

Ernst struggled in the wake of his triumph, though. In 23 subsequent starts, he has missed the cut 15 times, and his lone top-40 finish comes with an asterisk – Ernst finished 30th among a 30-man field last month during the winners-only event at Kapalua.

Like Gainey, he expected things to be easier following his victory.

“I felt like, hey, I won, so I should be able to do it every time now. Or at least every once in a while,” he said.

Ernst began to practice even harder last summer, regularly logging sessions that lasted 10 hours, sometimes longer. Those efforts failed to end his slump, though, and he made sweeping changes this past offseason.

“I changed agent, changed caddie, changed swing coach and I got a trainer,” he said. “Other than that, it’s pretty much the same.”

Unable to translate his efforts into better finishes, Ernst has worked in recent weeks to focus less on the leaderboard.

“I have a goal every week of what I want to do, and it’s not a results goal, it’s just a process goal. If I do that, then I’m fine. I don’t care about what the result is. If I did what I can do, then that’s all that I can control.”

Winning remains the goal for every player in the field this week, and Ernst and Gainey can take heart in knowing they have already reached a pinnacle to which many can only aspire.

As each can attest, though, the second chapter in a career is sometimes the most difficult to write.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”

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Duke to fill in for injured Pavin at CareerBuilder

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:25 pm

Ken Duke will fill in for Corey Pavin for the next two rounds of the CareerBuilder Challenge – with nothing at stake but his amateur partner’s position on the leaderboard.

Pavin was 4 over par when he withdrew after 17 holes Thursday because of a neck injury. Tournament officials contacted Duke, the first alternate, and asked if he would take Pavin’s spot and partner with Luis Lopez for the next two rounds, even though he would not receive any official money.

Duke accepted and explained his decision on Twitter:

Playing on past champion’s status, the 48-year-old Duke has made only four starts this season, with a best finish of a tie for 61st at the RSM Classic.

Pavin received a sponsor exemption into the event, his first PGA Tour start since the 2015 Colonial.