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Derek Ernst returns to Quail Hollow, site of his surprise 2013 win

Derek Ernst isn’t sure what to expect when he arrives at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club this week to defend the Wells Fargo Championship he so surprisingly won in 2013.

“I think it’s going to be a fun week,” said Ernst. “I’ve never been a defending champion before. It’s a new experience for me. But I’ll probably be known by people there more there than anywhere else I play.”

Ernst’s victory at Quail Hollow made him perhaps the PGA Tour’s most unlikely winner in recent memory. A 22-year-old rookie ranked 1,207th in the world, Ernst slipped into the 2013 Wells Fargo field at the last minute as a fourth alternate. Then, on a rainy Sunday, he took down stars such as Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood before beating David Lynn in a playoff.

Ernst had come from virtually nowhere to win one of the tour’s most prestigious events, earning $1.2 million in the process (the bulk of the $1.33 million he won all season).

“It feels good to know I beat those big names head-to-head to win the tournament,” Ernst said. “It gave me all kinds of confidence.”

But his victory at Quail Hollow – or anything close to it – is not been something Ernst has been able to replicate. After leaving Charlotte last May, he quickly returned to his pre-Wells Fargo form for the remainder of the 2013 season, missing more cuts than he made and finishing no higher than a tie for 44th.

This season has started not much better. Although Ernst made the cut in this week’s Zurich Classic Of New Orleans, it’s just the sixth time he’s played the weekend in 16 tournaments. He entered the New Orleans tournament ranked 174th in the world.

But Ernst, now 23, isn’t concerned. That’s because he has a plan.

Two-year exemption

Just a year out of Nevada Las Vegas, Ernst had earned his 2013 PGA Tour card – good for one season – through the tour’s “Q-School” qualifying tournament.

When Ernst won the Wells Fargo, his guaranteed time on tour was extended with a two-year exemption, a lifetime for a young player still finding his way professionally.

“If I hadn’t won last year, I would have to keep doing all those things to try and get myself into the top 125 (on either the PGA Tour money list or in the FedEx Cup standings),” said Ernst. “Getting the two-year exemption was huge, because now I knew I had a job for two years.”

Ernst is taking these two years to re-work his game into one that might more consistently recapture what he found for a week in Charlotte last year. To do that, he hired a new caddie, swing coach and agent.

“I’m going to try and get as good as I can and prepare myself for a future on the Tour,” he said. “It frees me up: I don’t have to worry that if I don’t perform well, I’m back to worrying about how close I might be to not being out here any more.”

“There were a lot of things I needed to change if I want to stay out here. I figured I had the time to do it and I needed to take advantage.”

Greg LaBelle, Ernst’s new coach, said he’s working with Ernst on the basics. Ernst needs more than what it took to be successful in high school in Woodland, Calif., and at UNLV.

“Derek is willing to make the changes he needs to make in order to have a great career out here,” said LaBelle, an instructor at the Las Vegas-based Butch Harmon School of Golf. “He obviously has shown he knows how to win and has the guts to do that. Now there are just some changes we’re making that he needs to make that happen and for it to be sustainable.”

Much of Ernst’s improvement needs to come in his short game and putting. He’s already one of the tour’s top drivers, ranked fifth overall through last week. But he hits greens in regulation just 64 percent of the time and ranks 100th or lower in every putting category. His scoring average of 73.5 is about four strokes higher than that of Tour leader Matt Kuchar.

“It’s his overall fundamentals and being more consistent,” said LaBelle. “His alignment is a little bit out of whack. He needs a better understanding of the game and his swing. He’s gaining more confidence. He’s in a new environment out there every week, a tough one. Once he gets his feet, you’ll see him take off with his consistency.”

Ernst is also on a workout regimen that he said has helped him gain 20 pounds of muscle (170 to 190) from a year ago.

“If you’re working out, it helps you as much mentally as it does physically,” said Ernst. “That’s why Tiger (Woods) started working out. He was working harder than anybody on Tour. If it works for him, I can do that, too.”

Ernst is certain his time will come – again – and when it does, he won’t be going anywhere.

“All this work and these changes haven’t paid off yet,” he said. “But they will.”

Fateful change of plans

While Ernst made the cut this week in New Orleans, he still doesn’t have a top-25 finish this season. He ranks 183rd on the money list ($169,901). Another perk of winning – playing in the Masters – ended with another missed cut.

In other words, Ernst isn’t in much different form than he was a year ago, as he drove a rental car out of New Orleans the Monday after finishing tied for 47th at the 2013 Zurich Classic. Not on the Wells Fargo tournament’s entry list, he was making the long drive to Athens, Ga., where he would play in a tournament on the Web.com Tour, golf’s minor league.

He was, however, listed as the Wells Fargo’s fourth alternate. As he neared Athens, his cell phone rang. It was a tournament official in Charlotte, saying Ernst had been included in the field after Frederick Jacobsen withdrew.

To avoid a hefty fee of $1,000, Ernst returned the car to Athens, where he rented another and drove to Charlotte.

The practice round he played Tuesday was the first time he had played Quail Hollow. Thursday, Ernst played like he’d been on the course all his life, taking the first-round lead with a 5-under 67.

“I really drove the ball well,” Ernst remembered. “I stayed on the fairway a lot.”

Ernst remained near the top of the leader board the rest of the way. Mickelson, however, appeared to be in control on Sunday before he bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17. Others, including McIlroy and Westwood, also fell away.

That set up a playoff between Ernst and Lynn. The playoff lasted one hole, with Ernst nailing down the victory by hitting his approach shot to within 15 feet of the hole.

The Wells Fargo had a new champion, but Ernst didn’t have the star power or name recognition of most of the players he beat.

As Ernst finished up a radio interview later Sunday, a worker approached him to take him to a post-tournament function.

“Which one of you is Derek Ernst?” the worker asked.

‘Chaminade of the tour’

Ernst is flying from New Orleans to Charlotte this year instead of driving a rental car.

Quail Hollow is looking forward to welcoming him back.

“We’ve got a lot of good feelings about Derek,” said Kym Hougham, the tournament’s executive director. “He really earned it last year, he hit shots down the stretch that he needed to hit.”

Hougham puts his own historical context on Ernst’s victory by comparing it to the college basketball team that shocked the sports world in 1982 by beating top-ranked Virginia and superstar Ralph Sampson.

“Derek might have been the Chaminade of the tour last year,” Hougham said.

Hougham said the tournament doesn’t put too many demands on its defending champion, requiring only a limited schedule of meetings with media and sponsors.

“We want him to be able to prepare as well as he can to see if lightning can strike twice,” said Hougham.

Ernst doesn’t see why not.

“I’ll take all the experience I got from last year,” he said. “I really like the golf course. It gave me my big chance.”

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