Thursday, December 06, 2012

Derek Ernst Joins an Elite Circle

Steven Bowditch from Australia (above right), Kris Blanks from Florida, and Derek Ernst from Clovis, California (teeing off) were in the final trio on the last day of the Qualifying School Tournament in La Quinta, thanks to their cumulative scores the previous five days.

The 29-year-old Bowditch above started the day in the lead, but was soon just hanging on to a slim cushion that would ensure a top 25 score to secure next year's PGA Tour playing privileges. Through the first nine holes, he was spraying his tee shots all over the place, into water and other punitive locations. There were a pair of fans from Portland, Oregon following Bowditch during the round who seemed to know everything about his struggle with acute chronic depression, and by the end of the five-hour round, they were close to being mental wrecks themselves. (Click here for a 2009 story by Golf Digest's Jim Moriarty.)

On the other hand, the 22-year-old Derek Ernst, a recent graduate from UNLV, looked happy, calm and collected over those same first nine holes, but he ended up having to face a few mental struggles down the final stretch himself.

There were so few spectators that it was easy to get to know everyone following a group, and the lady above turned out to be Dawn Ernst, his mom, and the gentleman below was Mark Ernst, his dad.

There's a long tradition of obnoxious, controlling stage parents in entertainment and sports, where adults live their dreams through their offspring, but the Ernst parents seemed to be the opposite, quiet and self-effacing and genuinely amazed at the places their son was taking them.

A good analogy for the world of professional golf is professional opera, which requires unusual god-given talents along with years of training and study, even though there are only 200 to 300 star singers at any one time who can be counted on to have a worldwide audience. The same ecosystem holds true for professional golf, and securing a PGA Tour card is a major entryway into the sporting equivalent of those rarified heights.

During a discussion about Derek and his working class versus country club background, an older gentleman offered, "He's going to be entering a very elite circle. There are plenty of millionaires in the world," he added, "but only a few hundred people get to play golf at this level. I wonder if he has any idea what he's getting into."

On the final nine holes, the reality of the situation seemed to hit Derek and putts stopped dropping while his tee shots were landing in fairway bunkers and water hazards.

His father Mark watched from the sidelines with an imperfect attempt at complete stoicism, but Derek had built enough of a cushion over five and a half days that he finished in the top 25 with two strokes to spare.

There was a look of joyful relief on Derek's face as he wrote down his score after the 18th hole, and officially began his PGA Tour career.

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