It wasn’t a mastery of the slow and much maligned greens at Quail Hollow that propelled Derek Ernst to victory. Neither was it the assistance of Phil Mickelson, who leaked fuel as he headed through the Green Mile on Sunday. Mickelson left behind quite a bit of green over the stretch as he plummeted down the leaderboard.
The No. 1,207-ranked player in the world had only played in eight PGA Tour events before this week; clearly neither experience, nor comfort with the course, were critical to the rookie’s win.
Ernst was third in the field in greens in regulation for the week and 11th in strokes gained-putting. He was ninth in the field in scrambling, as well as 11th in driving distance. Statistically, then, Ernst was near the top of major categories. Statistical dominance, however, doesn’t adequately explain the win.
The precondition for Derek Ernst’s victory was the willingness of Tour golfers to withdraw from any tournament that doesn’t present them with the finely manicured conditions they’ve come to expect. Ernst, the fourth alternate for the Wells Fargo Championship, would only have seen the first tee box on television, were it not for the mass exodus of pros who took a look at the forecast, considered the greens and decided there were better ways to prepare for the Players Championship next week than by teeing it up at Quail Hollow.
It would be unfair and inaccurate, however, to characterize the victory of the 22-year-old and four-time All American at UNLV as the product of better golfers opting out of the field, thus opening up a spot and occluding the possibility of, say, Tiger Woods’ name on the leaderboard.
The real key to victory for Ernst was something we’re seeing more and more on Tour: The ability of young/rookie golfers to play like seasoned winners down the stretch, rather than wilting under the immense pressure of the final round of a Tour event.
We saw this last year with Charlie Beljan’s incredible performance at the Walt Disney Classic and, again, we saw the same thing with Russell Henley at the Sony Open in Hawaii. Ditto Michael Thompson and Billy Horschel.
In the cold rain on Sunday, staring down the likes of Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, Derek Ernst was able to play his game and rise to the occasion. At no point was this clearer than when the young golfer needed a birdie at the notoriously difficult closing hole. Ernst stepped up, calmly stuck a 6-iron approach shot to a few feet and made the putt.
It was this ability, refined thorough his mental game work with Susie Meyers no doubt, that was the critical element in Derek Ernst’s Wells Fargo Championship win.