NAPLES, Fla. – Austin Ernst is a promising young American on the rise.
She moved into position to accelerate that ascension Thursday taking the first-round lead at the CME Group Tour Championship.
Ernst fired eight birdies against two bogeys shooting a 6-under-par 66 to give herself a one-shot lead on Mi Hyang Lee and a two-shot lead on Cristie Kerr, Brittany Lincicome, Sei Young Kim, Gerina Piller, Jaye Marie Green and Jennifer Song.
“You have to rank this right behind the majors,” said Ernst, 23. “Just being the Tour Championship, we've got the top 72 from the year playing this week. So you are seeing the best of the best. Obviously, it’s getting ahead of myself, but it would be a really good victory.”
Ernst won the Cambia Portland Classic for her first LPGA title last year.
“Obviously, winning in Portland, that's so far been the highlight of my career,” Ernst said. “This week would definitely top that. Yeah, we've got a long way to go to get there.”
Ernst made a strong run at making the U.S. Solheim Cup team this year, finishing 13th on the American points list. She didn’t get a captain’s pick but was so highly regarded that captain Juli Inkster made her the team’s first alternate.
Ernst was asked if she were encouraged coming so close to making the team or disappointed falling short.
“Both,” she said. “That was my goal coming into the year, to be able to be on that Solheim Cup. I was disappointed, but at the same time it motivated me to want to play better. This next time around, I don't want to have to worry about being a captain's pick. So I’ve used it as motivation.”