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Fowler: A weird day for Quail Hollow Club, a wild win for Derek Ernst

Little-known rookie wins 2013 Wells Fargo Championship, a tournament he barely qualified for

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

It was undoubtedly the weirdest, wettest closing Sunday in the 11-year history of the Wells Fargo Championship.

It was so wet that the tee times were pushed up five hours for the leaders – the last group teed off at 8:46 a.m. That meant the tournament won by 22-year-old PGA Tour rookie Derek Ernst actually finished well before the CBS broadcast began.

It was so wet that one of the 14 clubs in all the golfers’ bags should have been a snorkel. It was so wet that many fans with Sunday tickets had to make the choice between church and golf, and God only knows what they did.

Ernst won on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff over David Lynn when he tapped in for a routine par at No. 18 following Lynn’s scenic tour of the hole (from creek to sand to tall grass to surrendering handshake).

But Ernst winning – that was weird, too. Who beyond the most fervent golf junkies even knew who Ernst was?

In his news conference afterward, I asked Lynn – a 39-year-old British golfer who has had a solid career mostly in Europe – what he had known about Ernst before this week.

“I’d never heard of him,” Lynn said.

Me neither. But he sure can play.

Both Lynn and Ernst finished a stroke ahead of Phil Mickelson, who led most of the week but bogeyed two of the last three holes and professed himself “pretty bummed out” after finishing third.

He shared that feeling with many fans. Mickelson, as usual, was the people’s choice. A victory by Lefty would have been the saving grace for a tournament that would have liked to have taken a mulligan on its weather doldrums and splotchy greens, caused partly by unseasonably cool and wet temperatures in March and April.

That was not to be, though. There turned out to be no easy fix for this tournament, not this year. As The New York Times noted, those problematic Quail Hollow greens were “balder than worn tires.” At least the golfers didn’t have to go until Monday to finish up, though. Organizers moving the tee times so far up in anticipation of worse weather arriving Sunday afternoon should be applauded as both appropriate and necessary.

You couldn’t avoid the weather entirely, though. Sunday was golf’s version of a May-December romance.

You had to really love the game to come out and watch, because even though the calendar said May it felt like December.

“The rain wasn’t so bad,” Ernst said. “It was more like how cold it got, too. I don’t like playing with sweatshirts or jackets on.”

Some hardy fans did come, dressing as if the Panthers were playing a late-season game at home against the Saints. They brought umbrellas, rain boots and somewhat irritated expressions. Those expressions said, “Are you kidding me? It’s Cinco de Mayo – where is the sun?”

Those who did brave the conditions saw some scrambling, fine golf, although not necessarily from those you would expect. At one point Sunday morning the top four names on the leader board were Mickelson, Westwood, Watney and McIlroy. All four faded into the mist.

Ernst, meanwhile, leaped to the front. A Californian, he was in college at UNLV a year ago. He had missed five of seven cuts as a PGA rookie in 2013 and didn’t finish in the top 45 of the two previous tournaments in which he did survive until the weekend.

A change in plans

He didn’t expect to play in Charlotte, either. Ernst was the fourth alternate for the Wells Fargo Championship and was planning to play an event in Athens, Ga., on the lesser Web.com tour. But he got in after a host of late withdrawals.

Ernst became the third champion in Charlotte who had not yet reached his 23rdrd birthday at the time of his victory, joining Anthony Kim (2008) and McIlroy (2010). His four-round total of 280 (8-under par) represented the highest total that has ever won at Quail Hollow, but it was quite an accomplishment given the conditions.

“It was a pretty miserable day out there,” said Lee Westwood, who finished tied for fourth.

Not for Ernst. He won $1,206,000 for his first PGA Tour victory. The last time he had won something had been 13 months before, and it was a college-level tournament in Arizona.

He acted Sunday after winning like he didn’t know what hit him, just saying over and over that the feeling was “unbelievable.”

That it was. And that Ernst won this tournament – becoming by far its most obscure victor – just went along with the week’s overall theme of soggy weirdness.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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