Ernst charts a tough course toward U.S. Open

Derek Ernst lines up a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship. He would birdie the hole to get into a playoff and then par it on the first hole of sudden death to win his first PGA Tour title.

Derek Ernst lines up a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the Wells Fargo Championship. He would birdie the hole to get into a playoff and then par it on the first hole of sudden death to win his first PGA Tour title.

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Chances are, the folks at the USGA and R&A didn’t take Derek Ernst into consideration when they put together their exempt categories for their respective 2013 Open championships.

But something tells me if they make adjustments going forward, it will be because of what the 23-year-old accomplished recently. By winning the Wells Fargo Championship at the Quail Hollow Club, Ernst not only scripted one of the great storybook tales in recent PGA Tour history but proved that for all their due diligence and homework, the powers that be in golf are always facing curveballs.

When was the last time a PGA Tour tournament winner was forced to tee it up at a local qualifier for the U.S. Open in the same calendar year or another player ranked 123rd in the world was ineligible for an Open Championship qualifier? Ernst fits the bill on both counts.

“That’s me, Mr. Slip-Through-The-Cracks,” Ernst said over the weekend at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas. He was smiling, and that is part of the charm and the good flavor to Ernst. Despite the head-shaking set of circumstances that worked against him, he has put his head down, played on, and made not a peep.

Here’s the gist of his story: By every angle of measurement, Ernst should have been exempt through local qualifying for the U.S. Open and given a tee time into the Open Championship International Final Qualifying at Gleneagles Country Club in Plano, Texas, on May 20. But neither happened, all because Ernst had the misfortune of scripting his Quail Hollow miracle story after deadlines had passed.

Category L-18 exempts winners of PGA Tour events for 2010, '11, '12 “and the current year through April 24” into sectional qualifying. Unfortunately for Ernst, the Wells Fargo Championship was played May 2-5, and despite requests to consider extenuating circumstances from the former UNLV player’s attorney/agent, Burt Kinerk, an exception wasn’t made. “Certain rules they go by they’re so entrenched,” Kinerk said.

“With almost 10,000 entries filed and the necessity for us to set our final fields (and) establish the allocation of spots at each of the local qualifying sites, it was critical that we adhered to our final cutoff point for exemptions,” said John Bodenhamer, the USGA's senior managing director of rules, competition, and equipment standards.

“Many other worldwide tours are afforded similar exemptions," Bodenhamer said. "Deviating from the deadline or making individual exceptions, would make it near impossible for us to set our final fields . . . and achieve that equitable entry process for all players."

The good news is, Ernst is one tough and resilient kid. His history is littered with impressive notations, even if he never was afforded the extravagant life of some well-to-do junior players. So when he made it through all four stages of Q-School last year to earn his PGA Tour card for 2013, not everyone was stunned. Kinerk knows Ernst has his admirers and marvels at the young man’s demeanor.

So even though he was ranked 123rd in the Official World Golf Ranking, even though he had his name on a Wells Fargo trophy that included the likes of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and David Toms, even though he had outplayed Phil Mickelson and been awarded a check for $1.206 million . . . Ernst arrived at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas on May 13 to compete against other locals.

Unlike Quail Hollow, Ernst was not in competition with the PGA Tour’s finest. Just as at Quail Hollow, though, he had his hands full. When it came down to a three-for-two playoff, Ernst made birdie on his second hole to advance and will be part of the sectional qualifying field next Monday in Springfield, Ohio.

His timing in winning the Wells Fargo worked against him with the Open Championship IFQ, too. The deadline for that was May 2 and on that day, Ernst was No. 1,207 in the world order. Since the IFQ field is limited to 78 players, entries are based on world-ranking standing. “I think we were something like the 74th alternate,” Kinerk said.

When May 20 rolled around, Ernst was 123rd in the world, but not in the IFQ. Of the eight who advanced that day, only Luke Guthrie (68th) and Josh Teater (112th) had better OWGR standing than Ernst. Bud Cauley (125th), Scott Brown (143rd), Johnson Wagner (148th), Brian Davis (149th), Robert Karlsson (173rd) and Camilo Villegas (269th) all were ranked lower.

None of this is to suggest that Ernst was treated unfairly. Again, he is the ultimate “slip-through-the-cracks” story. There also is the chance tweaks could be made to the process so that something like this never happens again. For a reference point, there is Justin Rose in 2010. The Englishman won the Memorial, for goodness sakes, clearly one of the premier tournaments of the year, and jumped to 33rd in the world. But because the Memorial came after the deadline for top-50 exemptions into the U.S. Open, Rose had to drag himself out of bed the night after a festive occasion and go 36 holes of a sectional qualifier.

He missed, but guess what? The Justin Rose Rule came into effect the very next year. It’s not officially called that, mind you, but the USGA wisely exempts top-50 players at two intervals: the week before the Memorial and the week after the Memorial.

Is a Derek Ernst Rule on the horizon?

Given that USGA and R&A officials are always tweaking and adjusting their exempt categories, it would make sense. Making a slight edit so that a deserving player is not overlooked isn’t a bad thing.

“If there is a better way of doing things which still allows us to administer our championships efficiently and fairly, we are certainly open-minded to it,” Bodenhamer said.

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