CHARLOTTE, N.C. – One phone call changed his plans. One shot changed a lot more for Derek Ernst.
Six days after Ernst received a call that he was in the Wells Fargo Championship as the fourth alternate, the 22-year-old rookie found himself one shot off the lead. He stood 192 yards away from the flag on the 18th hole, the toughest at Quail Hollow, in the cold, wind and rain of a grueling final round.
Ernst choked up on a 6-iron and hit a draw that landed 4 feet from the hole for one of only four birdies on the closing hole Sunday.
The birdie gave him a 2-under 70 and tied him with David Lynn of England, who also had a 70. And it turned out to be no fluke. Returning to the 18th in the playoff, as the rain started coming down harder, Ernst hit a 3-iron to about 15 feet left of the flag that set up his stunning victory.
Phil Mickelson didn’t get a chance to join them. He had a one-shot lead with three holes to play until making back-to-back bogeys, missing putts of 6 feet and 10 feet. His 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th narrowly missed, and he closed with a 73.
“I felt like I was in control, and I let it slip away there the last few holes, so it was disappointing,” Mickelson said.
So ended a strange week at Quail Hollow. The greens were shockingly bad due to weather and agronomical issues, which led to several players dropping out. The sun never really came out all week, and the wind chill Sunday morning made it hard to believe it was the first weekend in May. It felt like February at Pebble Beach.
“This feeling is unbelievable right now,” said Ernst, who wasn’t sure where he was going at the start of the week, and can’t believe where he’s going now.
For starters, the victory at Quail Hollow gets him into The Players Championship next week. He qualifies for two World Golf Championships, the PGA Championship, the Tournament of Champions next year at Kapalua and the Masters next April.
Before coming to Charlotte, the rookie swapped out rental cars in Georgia so he wouldn’t have to pay the $1,000 fee for dropping the car in another location. Along with a two-year exemption on tour, the win earned him just over $1.2 million.
Even though hardly anyone was paying attention to Ernst – not with so many big names in the hunt over the last two hours – he might have played the best golf.
Ernst hit a beautiful wedge from about 100 yards into 4 feet to escape with par on the 12th. He missed birdie putts from 5 feet on the 14th after nearly driving the green, and he missed another birdie putt from 6 feet on the 16th. But he made the birdie that mattered, on the 18th in regulation, to set up his big win.