A week like no other at Quail Hollow held one final surprise Sunday when 22-year-old rookie Derek Ernst birdied the 18th hole to force a playoff and then won the Wells Fargo Championship on the first extra hole against David Lynn of England.
Phil Mickelson, who had a one-shot lead with three holes to play, made bogeys on the 16th and 17th holes, and he narrowly missed a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th that would have allowed him to join the playoff. He had a 73 and finished third.
Ernst was playing only his ninth PGA Tour event. He was the fourth alternate at the start of the week. He was No. 1,207 in the world ranking. None of that mattered when he choked up on a 6-iron from 192 yards and drilled his shot into 4 feet. He made one of only four birdies on the 18th in the final round, and this was the most important. It gave him a 2-under 70 and put him in a playoff with Lynn, who also shot 70.
The shot was no fluke. On the 18th hole in the playoff, as the cold rain started coming down harder, Ernst hit a 3-iron left of the flag to 15 feet. Lynn went from the bank of a creek to the bunker to the rough behind the green, and Ernst was able to win with a par.
”This feeling is unbelievable right now,” said Ernst, who wasn’t sure where he was going at the start of the week and can’t believe where he’s going now.
For starters, the victory at Quail Hollow gets him into The Players Championship next week. He qualifies for two World Golf Championships, the PGA Championship, the Tournament of Champions next year at Kapalua and the Masters next April.
And to think he started this week in a rental car driving from New Orleans to Georgia to play a Web.com Tour event. He received a call Monday afternoon that enough players had pulled out — several stayed away because of the ragged greens — that he was in the Wells Fargo Championship.
The rest of the week was a blur.
The greens were choppy all week, surprising for a club that prides itself on the most pristine conditions. The sun didn’t shine all week, and it was colder on the first weekend of May in Charlotte than it was at Pebble Beach in February.
Early in the final round, the leaderboard featured Mickelson and Nick Watney at the top, with Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood right behind.
When it was over, the winner was Ernst, who grew up in the central valley of California and has cloudy vision out of his right eye from a freak accident as a kid.
Ernst won just over $1.2 million and most important to him was the two-year exemption that comes with winning.
Robert Karlsson, the Swede who now lives in Charlotte, needed a birdie on the last hole to get into the playoff but made bogey for a 72. That left him in a tie for fourth with Westwood, who was tied for the lead until back-to-back bogeys early on the back nine.
McIlroy was one shot behind when he made a double bogey on the 12th hole. He played that hole in 4-over for the week. He had a 73 and tied for 10th.
”Yeah, 12 was the turning point,” McIlroy said. ”Didn’t play at all well there this week. Some positives are I hit the ball very well from tee to green for the most part of the week, and looking forward to The Players (Championship) next week.”
None of the contenders was more disappointed than Mickelson. He badly wanted to add his name to the list of winners at Quail Hollow, which in its first 10 years already included six major champions. But for the second straight day, the final stretch of holes did him in.
Mickelson took a one-shot lead with a chip that settled inches away for a tap-in birdie on the 14th, and he was poised to widen his lead on the par-5 15th. His second shot came up just short and into the bunker, but Mickelson could only blast that out to 12 feet and he left the birdie putt short. That proved costly.
Mickelson chipped too hard on the 16th and missed a 6-foot par putt to slip into a three-way tie for the lead — Ernst and Lynn had just finished at 8-under 280 — and then he three-putted from about 65 feet away just off the green, missing a 10-foot par putt.
”I’m pretty bummed out,” Mickelson said. ”I thought that this was one I had in control. If I could have gotten that bunker shot up-and-down on 15, I would have had a two-shot lead heading into those last three holes, which I know are difficult holes, so it would have been nice to have that.
”There is just no excuse,” he added. ”It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary or difficult. I should have made par.”
Ernst was an unknown for many on tour, including the guy he beat in a playoff. He made it through Q-school on his first try, made the cut in his first event of the year in Hawaii, and then missed his next five cuts on the PGA Tour until he tied for 47th in New Orleans last week.
Even though hardly anyone was paying attention — not with so many big names in the hunt over the last two hours — he might have played the best golf.
Ernst hit a beautiful wedge from about 100 yards into 4 feet to escape with par on the 12th, and he avoided a three-putt on the next hole with a 7-foot par putt. He missed birdie putts from 5 feet on the 14th after nearly driving the green, and he missed another birdie putt from 6 feet on the 16th. But he made the birdie that mattered, on the 18th in regulation, that set up his big win.
Through it all, Ernst never considered winning.
”I didn’t think about what I had to do or what I didn’t do,” he said. ”I just thought about each shot. What is the next one? How am I going to get this next one in the hole? So that was big.”