PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – In the last week Derek Ernst has covered more than 1,100 miles in a well-used rental car, but that doesn’t compare to the metaphorical distance he has travelled professionally over the same period.
A little over a year ago, the affable Ernst was winning a college event at Arizona State and daydreaming of a distant day when the crystal he was hoisting was on a PGA Tour Sunday.
That cold and rainy day arrived last week at a course that has proven adept at identifying young champions and potential world-beaters (see McIlroy, Rory; Fowler, Rickie), when the 22-year-old outdueled the likes of Phil Mickelson, McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Nick Watney.
No more will Ernst be distracted by thoughts of winning his first Tour tilt, or any other thoughts for that matter. At least if his finish at the Wells Fargo Championship was any indication.
“My mind was just cluttered with all these different things,” Ernst said of his rookie card before Quail Hollow that featured five missed cuts and not a single finish inside the top 40.
From clarity of thought come moments of brilliance.
With Mickelson, McIlroy & Co. closing in, Ernst birdied two of his last four holes to force a playoff with David Lynn which he won with a par at the first extra frame.
But if the victory was impressive, consider the icy approach he took in extra frames. After hitting what he believed was a good drive at the 18th hole in the playoff, Ernst arrived at his golf ball to discover he had 218 yards to the hole. Less than 20 minutes earlier he’d hit what he thought was a similar drive and had 188 yards to the pin.
“I had a 6-iron in regulation and a 3-iron in the playoff,” he laughed. “I wasn’t (pumped up). I was really calm. I needed more adrenaline to hit the drive further.”
On paper, Ernst is listed as a rookie. But in practice nothing about his Sunday suggested he was overwhelmed by the moment.
Susie Meyers expected nothing less.
Meyers is a former LPGA Tour player turned swing coach, although that description is the acme of understatement.
“I really do work the golf swing big, but I present the information so they don’t know that we are working on the golf swing,” said Meyers, who teaches out of Ventana Canyon in Tucson, Ariz. “I really just coach the person.”
In the case of Ernst, it felt more like speed coaching.
The two began working together in mid-April and from the outset Ernst knew Meyers’ approach was different.
“The mental part always plays a big factor, but that’s what I struggled with earlier in the year. She just talked to me. For the first hour we just sat down and talked,” said Ernst, who earned a spot in this week’s field at The Players via his Wells Fargo victory.
The themes sound familiar – keep a quiet mind, stay in the moment, remain patient – but something about the message, or maybe it was the messenger, sounded new. When Ernst left the golf course late last Saturday trailing Mickelson and Watney by two strokes, Meyers had one last bit of advice.
“I figured he was going to play a lot of holes, so I told him, ‘Your job is not to think that I have three holes left to play, or two holes. Just focus on each shot,’” said Meyers, who also works with Michael Thompson, this year’s Honda Classic champion. “Not many people can do that.”
Ernst wasn’t even in the field at Quail Hollow when he began last week. The fourth alternate got the call while he was on his way to play in a Web.com Tour event in Georgia, so he just kept driving.
On Sunday, $1.2 million richer, he climbed into another rental car for the drive to TPC Sawgrass. When reminded that most Tour winners tend to fly from stop to stop, Ernst smiled sheepishly, “I wanted to waste the day so we drove.”
It seems apropos that Ernst’s first Tour victory would come at the 2013 Wells Fargo Championship – a player dogged by cluttered thoughts enduring a week full of distractions, from spotty greens to Sunday’s wet finish.
“I don’t think Derek saw adversity at all, he just didn’t cloud anything up with the normal Tour player stuff,” Meyers said. “It’s been an awesome time to have a kid walk into your life and listen to what you say.”
If last week’s performance at Quail Hollow was any indication, the golf world will have to start listening to Ernst now. When he began the season his goal was to retain his Tour card. Now that he’s locked that up for two years, he said on Tuesday that he has no problem moving on to the next phase of his career.
“I want to win more now. Why not?” he said.
The only thing he has to iron out is his travel plans. Driving from Tour stop to Tour stop may become a tad consuming.