Derek Ernst and too much, too soon
Let me start this off by saying that I don’t know Derek Ernst at all. Outside of knowing that he’s a professional golfer, I have no inside information on the kind of person he is or where his head’s at this week as he gets set to defend at Quail Hollow. It’s that win last year that has me curious about him though, and as weird as it is to say, I actually feel bad for the guy.
Before we get to Quail Hollow though, we have to go back to the 2012 Q-School, which was in its last year as the gateway to the PGA Tour. Ernst was one of twenty-six players to earn his PGA Tour card at Q-School that year, along with more notable names like Patrick Reed, Billy Horschel and Erik Compton, plus other recent PGA Tour winners Matt Jones and Steven Bowditch. Ernst started his 2013 PGA Tour season in Hawaii at the Sony Open and finished tied for 59th. He missed the cut in his next six starts, including one on the Web.com Tour, before finishing tied for 47th at the Zurich Classic, the site of Horschel’s first PGA Tour win.
Since he was the fourth alternate for the Wells Fargo, Ernst started to prepare for the Stadion Classic on the Web.com Tour. As was well documented last year though, Quail Hollow had some serious problems with maintenance in the lead up to the tournament, and it was so bad that players were pulling out because of the conditions. When Freddie Jacobson became the fourth player to pull out with an “injury”, Ernst was given a call and he came back to the Charlotte area to tee it up on the main tour, and he actually came away with the win. He was ranked 1,207th in the world at the time, and has been pointed out by many this week as he gets ready to defend, that would be like Australian Neven Basic winning this time around. Basic isn’t a household name even to hardcore golf fans, much the same as Ernst.
Since winning at Quail Hollow, it’s no secret that Ernst has struggled mightily, missing the cut in a whopping 19 of his 29 starts, but it’s also no secret that you can’t win on the PGA Tour without being an incredibly talented golfer. The fact is that once you get to the level that Ernst is on, playing golf on TV every week for money, everyone can play and everyone can go out and win the next event, even someone like Derek Ernst.
I often talk about, and did when Ernst won last year, that the first win is always the most important one for a player and it has nothing to do with the fact that a player like Ernst is confident now that he can win at the highest level. It all has to do with the fact that his win at Quail Hollow last year guaranteed that Ernst would continue playing on the PGA Tour for two years, and if you think that doesn’t mean a whole lot, consider this:
Based mostly on his win last year, Ernst finished 66th on the PGA Tour money list, with total earnings of $1,330,856. Dawie van der Walt finished 66th on the Web.com Tour money list. What did he take home? $94,497. So, even though van der Walt isn’t exactly struggling, that exemption matters plenty. I wonder though if Ernst winning last year was actually a bad thing.
Again, I don’t know the guy, but it just seems to me that all of a sudden, we see that this 22-year old doesn’t really have to worry about where his next paycheque is coming from, and while that’s obviously a great feeling, he now has this enormous amount of pressure to perform at the highest level. As D.J. Piehowski noted in his piece for PGATour.com yesterday, Ernst has undergone a whole bunch of changes since winning because he felt like he wasn’t built long term for the PGA Tour. He might be right and he might be wrong, but there’s no denying that the changes he’s made so far haven’t worked out in the slightest.
Look at the way that anyone is writing about Ernst this week, aside from Piehowski, and you’ll see that just about everyone thinks that he’s a joke and that the win was a fluke. Unless he comes out and wins another tournament soon, someone will probably put him on a “worst ever PGA Tour winners” list, as if winning on the PGA Tour is something that a random hacker at your local muni can pull off with ease.
I guess my point is that if Ernst doesn’t win at Quail Hollow last year, he doesn’t go about changing everything in his life as it relates to golf, and he’s allowed to progress as he would have regularly. Sure, maybe that means that he would have gone down to play on the Web.com Tour, but now at 23 years old, is that really a bad thing? Not everyone is Sergio Garcia or Jordan Spieth. Guys who come along and play well professionally in their late teens and early twenties are very rare, even if they’ve become more prominent in recent years, and even if Ernst is thinking that he’s going down the right path with all of these changes, he’s probably also frustrated with having no results at all in the past year.
Last week at the Zurich Classic, Ernst put together four under par rounds of golf for the first time since winning at Quail Hollow last year. Maybe it’s a sign that things are turning around and maybe it’s not, but I’m pulling for him. Certainly at only 23 years old, he’s got lots of time to figure it out.