Rancho Mirage, Calif. – World No. 1 Yani Tseng. Youngest LPGA winner Lexi Thompson. Solheim Cup hero Sophie Gustafson. And 2011 NCAA Division I women’s golf champion Austin Ernst.
Ernst found herself among a veritable who’s-who of LPGA Tour stars at the Kraft Nabisco Championship when she took to the putting green at Mission Hills Country Club’s Dinah Shore Course on Wednesday afternoon. A recipient of one of the championship’s annual amateur exemptions, Ernst, who also parlayed her NCAA victory into a spot on the 2012 USA Curtis Cup Team, has taken to the hubbub of the year’s first women’s golf major more like a seasoned pro rather than a wide-eyed rookie.
“The first couple days, it was just like, ‘Oh yeah, any other tournament,’ ” said Ernst, who arrived in the Coachella Valley for the second time in three months on Saturday. Ernst came to the CV in January for a Curtis Cup practice session at nearby La Quinta. “But all the tents went up and then Monday, all the pros started pulling in. A little bit of a crowd came out. It's unbelievable. You can just tell how big of a deal it is.”
Among Ernst’s early highlights was a six-hole outing with World Golf Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, who invited the Louisiana State University sophomore to join her and Louise Friberg for a round following Tuesday’s pro-am.
“She spoke to me a good bit,” said Ernst, who proudly admitted to outdriving the two-time U.S. Women’s Open champion on the 521-yard second hole. “I was going to pick her brain a bit, but I could tell that she was in her zone. I picked her brain a bit, but gave her [some] distance too.”
However, despite her comfort among the stars, the diminutive Seneca, S.C., native did sneak some glances at Tseng, a whiz with the putter who was getting some one-on-one advice from renowned instructor Dave Stockton.
“I’m working on a few things with my stroke, so my dad was having me look over at her,” said Ernst with a chuckle. “It was pretty cool.”
Her dad will have much more to do over the coming days than just direct his daughter to keep an eye on her competitors. Mark Ernst, a PGA Professional at Cross Creek Plantation, will serve as Austin’s caddie during her first LPGA foray.
“We're really close, so having him on the bag will be good,” said Ernst of her father. “He can calm me down when I need to. An extra eye on putts and just an extra set of advice will be nice. He knows my game better than anybody.”
Due to his job requirements, Mark usually has to stay home and miss Austin’s tournaments. This week is his time to spend with his daughter, while wife and mom, Melanie, holds down the fort at Cross Creek. Melanie, however, will accompany Austin to Scotland in June when the USA attempts to bring the Curtis Cup back to the United States for the eighth consecutive time and 28th overall.
“They both work at the course, and he said they can't both be away at the same time or it would just be havoc!” said Ernst with a chuckle.
If numbers are to believed, competing in the Curtis Cup Match is an omen for good things to come, particularly at this year’s Kraft Nabisco. There are 17 members of past USA Curtis Cup Teams in the field, including defending champion Stacy Lewis and five members of the 2010 Team – Cydney Clanton, Jennifer Johnson, Jessica Korda, Jennifer Song and Thompson. Add seven members of past Great Britain and Ireland Teams, plus Ernst and 2012 GB&I selection Charley Hull of England, and the list is impressive. In a neat twist of fate, Ernst will play the first two days with Alison Walshe, who went 4-0 to help lead the USA to victory at St. Andrews in 2008.
Ernst, who played a Wednesday practice round with Clanton and Thompson, hopes to learn from her Curtis Cup and LPGA compatriots.
“Seeing the golf aspect of it but just playing out here… I'm sure my nerves will be going pretty good tomorrow,” said Ernst. “I've had a little bit of experience on how to handle this, but playing in front of the crowd against the pros, to see how I stack up. It'll be pretty fun. I feel pretty good about where my game is, so I'll give it a go.”
But don’t be fooled by Ernst’s easygoing demeanor. She’s not just here for the experience. She has Yani in her sights.
“Playing with her would be sweet,” said Ernst, a mischievous grin on her face. “Hopefully I can make that happen on Sunday. I think I'd be in a pretty good position!”
NOTE: After a disappointing 5-over-par 77 in Thursday's first round, Ernst rebounded nicely with a 2-under 70 on Friday to make the cut one clear of the number. Ernst registered seven birdies against five bogeys.
"It could have been lower [if] a few more putts had gone in," said Ernst. "It could have easily been [three] shots lower. But two under is not too bad.
"Having the crowd there and just walking down where all the greats [of the game] have walked, it was really special."
Christina Lance is a coordinator of Championship Communications for the USGA. Email her at email@example.com.