CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One phone call changed his plans.
One shot changed a whole 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 out of the lead and 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.
“I was trying to hit it as close as I possibly could,” he said.
The birdie gave him a 2-under-par 70 and tied him with David Lynn, 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 out harder, Ernst hit a 3-iron 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 and 10 feet. His 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th narrowly missed, and Mickelson 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, and the wind chill Sunday morning made it hard to believe it was the first weekend in May.
Ernst was playing only his ninth PGA Tour event. He was No. 1,207 in the world ranking. He was in a car headed to Athens, Ga., to play a Web.com Tour event when he got the phone call that there was a tee time for him at Quail Hollow.
“This feeling is unbelievable right now,” he said.
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 a $1,000 fee for dropping the car at another location. Along with a two-year exemption on tour, the win earned him $1.2 million.
Lynn played the final three holes, known as the “Green Mile,” in a combined 4-under for the week without a single bogey. He chipped in from 70 feet for birdie on the 16th to go with a 55-foot chip-in on the 17th on Saturday and a 40-foot chip-in for birdie on the 18th on Friday.
Early in the final round, the leader board featured Mickelson and Nick Watney at the top, with Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood right behind.
When it was over, the winner was Ernst, who grew up in the central valley of California and has cloudy vision out of his right eye from a freak accident as a kid, when a piece of plastic pipe sliced into his eyeball and required 10 stitches.
“I’ve never heard of him,” Lynn said. “He’s a nice player. ... He played the finish really solid, and then he hit two really solid shots in the playoff.”
Copyright © 2016, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved