CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Derek Ernst went from Q-School to the winner’s circle in five months. Ernst topped a Wells Fargo Championship leaderboard that included names like Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Nick Watney on Sunday to claim his first PGA Tour victory.
Here’s 5 Things you need to know from the rookie’s win:
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1. QUICK LEARNER: Derek Ernst was playing college golf at UNLV this time last year. He didn’t turn pro until August 2012, and had to advance through all four stages of PGA Tour Q-School. He started this week at No. 1,207 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He handled himself like a veteran on Quail Hollow’s difficult closing holes before beating David Lynn in a playoff to claim the 2013 Quail Hollow Championship.
Ernst’s 8-foot birdie putt on the par-5 15th fell in on its last roll. He high-fived kids as he left the green, then walked some 50 yards to the 16th tee. The walkway passes behind several tents and in front of the club’s guest cabins. Ernst was one shot off the lead but took the time to dig a ball out of his bag to throw to a young fan.
He hit his approach shot to 5 feet at the 16th hole, but missed the birdie putt. He two-putted for par at the par-3 17th before hitting his approach shot on No. 18 to 5 feet and making the birdie putt to reach 8-under 280 and get into a playoff with David Lynn, the runner-up at last year’s PGA Championship. Ernst, who shot 3-under 33 on the back nine, and Lynn both shot 70 Sunday. Lynn’s last birdie came at the par-4 16th, where he chipped in from short of the green.
Lynn needed four shots to reach the green on on the first extra hole, while Ernst hit his 3-iron approach to 13 feet and two-putted for par and the win. “This feeling is unbelievable right now,” Ernst said.
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2. LEFT OUT: Phil Mickelson had a good chance to win his first Wells Fargo Championship, but bogeys at Nos. 16 and 17 left him one shot out of the playoff between Derek Ernst and David Lynn. Mickelson failed to execute a “pretty easy” chip on 16, then three-putted the 17th from 65 feet from the fringe. He missed par putts of 6 and 9 feet on the 16th and 17th holes.
Mickelson started the final round tied with Nick Watney for the lead, but fired a 1-over 73 Sunday.
“I’m pretty bummed out,” Mickelson said. “I would have liked to have won this one. I felt like I was in control, and I let it slip away.”
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3. CHANGE FOR THE BETTER: Ernst was planning to play this week’s Web.com Tour event before getting into the Wells Fargo Field as the fourth alternate. He was low in the Tour’s priority rankings after making just two cuts in his first seven events. He finished 59th at his first start, the Sony Open, before missing five consecutive cuts. He finished 47th at last week’s Zurich Classic. That’s where Ernst reunited with his caddie from his amateur days, Aaron Terry.
“I think I just tried to be someone that I wasn’t,” Ernst said about his first weeks on Tour. “Now I’ve kind of realized that and I’m going back to all the things that got me there in the first place.”
Ernst and Terry were driving from New Orleans to Atlanta when they learned that Ernst got in the Wells Fargo field. They had to drive to Athens, Ga., to drop off the rental car and avoid a $1,000 penalty before beginning their journey to Charlotte, N.C. Ernst was planning to take the following week off, but his win earned him a spot in The Players Championship. When asked if he would drive from Charlotte to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., he joked, “No, I think I’ll fly this time.” He can afford it now, after collecting a seven-figure winner’s check, as well as a two-year PGA Tour exemption and invitations to tournaments like the Masters, PGA Championship and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
A new caddie wasn’t the only recent change for Ernst. He also enlisted a new swing coach, Susie Meyers, about two weeks ago. Meyers is the longtime coach of Michael Thompson, who won this year’s Honda Classic. “She just says my mind races way too much,” Ernst said. “I’m just really fast and I’m jittery, and she just tries to calm me down and think about one thing at a time.”
Ernst is the second rookie and the youngest player (22 years, 11 months, 19 days) to win on Tour this season. Russell Henley (23 years, 9 months 1 day) won the season’s first full-field event, the Sony Open in Hawaii.
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4. ROCK STAR: David Lynn had to try a risky shot from the rocks after Derek Ernst hit his approach shot close on the first playoff hole. Lynn’s tee shot came to rest left of the fairway, next to the creek that runs down the hole. He had to stand on the rocks to hit his second shot. “I was a bit worried that I could slip and break my leg or something,” Lynn said. “I hit quite a good shot, I just didn’t turn enough.”
Lynn hit his shot into a bunker right of the green and blasted his third shot through the green. This was Lynn’s second top-10 of his rookie season. He also finished fourth at the Honda Classic.
“I haven’t been playing good at all all week,” Lynn said. “I’ve just been battling away.” He said he chipped-in three times this week, including at the 16th hole Sunday.
Lynn’s finish moved his world ranking high enough to clinch him a spot in the U.S. Open. The top 60 as of May 27 earn spots in the field at Merion. Lynn had booked a vacation that week, so he will skip the year’s second major.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: Nick Watney, who started the final round tied with Phil Mickelson in the lead, shot 76 to finish 10th. … Kyle Stanley’s final-round 68, including a birdie at the last hole, moved him up 23 spots on the leaderboard into a tie for sixth. He finished third at last week’s Zurich Classic, his first top-10s since going 2-1 in consecutive weeks at the Farmers Insurance Open and Waste Management Phoenix Open in 2012. … Rory McIlroy shot 73-73 on the weekend to finish 10th, four shots out of the playoff. McIlroy was 7 under at the turn, but shot 39 on the final nine. … Monday qualifier Vaughn Taylor finished 10th. Taylor, who finished 142nd on last year’s money list, has played six Tour events this year, with three top-25s. His top-10 finish here gets him in the HP Byron Nelson Championship, the week after the Players Championship. … Jordan Spieth finished 32nd.