No more under-the-radar, incognito act for Austin Ernst. The defending national champion entered her sophomore season as a name to watch and maybe even with a target on her back, and in her first outing of the fall, didn’t do anything to deter that.
Ernst shot rounds of 67-69-67 to beat Tennessee’s Erica Popson by four shots at the Cougar Classic, leading LSU to a five-shot team victory over North Carolina. It’s the first team victory Ernst has been a part of, as she missed LSU’s two wins last season because she hadn’t yet earned a roster spot. That’s a lot of progress to make in a year.
“Last year I kind of stayed under the radar pretty much,” she said. “When I won nationals it was kind of out of nowhere, everybody felt like.”
Ersnt began life at LSU as a player who stayed mostly in the 70s, occassionally didn’t break 80 and sometimes fired a score in the 60s. After winning the national championship, Ernst took a minor break from competitive golf over the summer as she knocked out two classes in summer school. She returned at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, advancing to the semifinals, and seems to only be getting stronger.
“I don’t mind being a name that’s held to a higher standard but I don’t mind being an underdog either,” Ernst said. “I felt like I’ve been an underdog my entire career, junior golf and everything.”
It’s a different look in Baton Rouge, after a total of five players left the Tiger roster at the end of last season. One of those players was Ernst’s mentor of sorts, Megan McChrystal, who led the team last year with a 72.4 stroke average and two wins.
Ernst describes the missing faces as being a weird feeling. Then again, as a freshman, Ernst certainly wasn’t getting any preferential treatment from her teammates. That’s changed now, too.
“I get front of the plane and back of the van, I was so excited,” she said of her sophomore status. “That was my favorite thing ever.”
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One for one: Two first-year coaches earned wins last week as the college golf season opened around the country, and both watched their team do it in comeback style.
Under the new leadership of Alan Bratton, who recently made the jump from men’s assistant to head women’s coach at Oklahoma State, the Cowgirls erased a 21-shot deficit at the Dale McNamara Invitational to beat Arizona State by five shots. Playing in the wind and playing close to home at the Tulsa-hosted event, Oklahoma State had some local knowledge to their advantage, but Bratton said the goal was just to see how the team could score. Oklahoma State shot 4-over 868 for three rounds.
“It was really cool to see the girls play that way,” he said. “They did a good job of playing with their foot on the gas all day.”
Sophomore Jayde Panos led the team in scoring, shooting a school-record 64 to jump from T-21 to T-2 in the final round. Panos had 15 birdies over the final two rounds.
Farther north in Nebraska, Jeanne Sutherland led SMU to its first team victory since 2006 at the Chip-N Club Invitational. The Mustangs shot 56-over 920 and beat Redlands Community College by a single shot thanks to late-round birdies from Felicia Espericueta (No 18) and Maria Elena Villamil (No. 17). Espericueta won the individual title, the first of her career.
“The thing I would say that really struck me is how excited these players were to have this success. Their excitement was really fun to watch,” Suherland said. “It’s a different thing when success is kind of new.”
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A Look Ahead:
• What: Golfweek Conference Challenge
• When: Sept. 19-21
• Where: Red Sky Golf Club (Fazio), Vail, Colo.
• Why it’s important: Red Sky Golf Club is a difficult layout set against a stunning mountain backdrop. The altitude should test players’ games, and the conference challenge format is unique to the rest of the season’s schedule. Keep an eye on UC Davis, a team that won its season opener at the Ptarmigan Ram Classic, and TCU, which returns a deep roster and a tough freshman after narrowly missing NCAAs last spring.
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Five questions with South Florida’s Christina Miller, who won the girls’ individual title at the Golfweek Program Challenge:
1.) You ended the tournament with a 5-under 65. How did that round come together?
I teed off on No. 1 and I stuck the second shot to 10 feet so just that got me off confident, pretty care-free the first two shots. Made the putt and fist pumped and I turned around and my coach was there … she threw the Bulls at me (we do this thing with our hands). Second hole, same thing. Two under after two, I was feeling really confident with how I was playing and putting. For the next 16 holes I didn’t try to do anything special, I knew that the birdies would come. I just hit the shots and hit the putt, if I made it good, if not I knew I would have a chance the next hole.
2. You transferred from Ole Miss to South Florida this season, how is it?
I had a pretty bad season by anyone’s standards last year and I just wasn’t a happy person and I know that with golf, my ultimate goal is to turn professional and I knew that it wasn’t going to happen probably if I stayed at Old Miss so I came to Florida to be closer to home and be closer to my swing coach.
3. You used to be a figure skater, why did you decide to focus on golf?
Skating, I was dropped off at the rink very early in the morning and not picked up until late at night. … With skating there’s no college and your’e stuck inside all day. Just the chances of you doing something with figure skating are very litle. My dad played golf and I actually was only planning on taking a three-day break and doing a golf camp at IMG for fun and I ended up not wanting to go back to skating after those three days.
4. What was it like traveling with South Florida’s boys team?
It was fun because we have opposite practice schedules so I really didn’t know any of the boys except one because we went to high school together. It was fun to finally get to know them and get closer as a team. We had a lot of team dinners. The last day we went out there because they were in contention to win, we went out and watched them finish and supported them.
5. What would you call the strength of your game?
Probably off the tee at this point – driver. I’m very confient with driver. I hit 85 percent of fairways at the tournament. Length, I’m farther than most girls off the tee.