Perhaps not as often as she once did, but Austin Ernst recalls all too well the United States’ tearful Curtis Cup loss three years ago on Scottish soil.
On a misty, windswept Sunday in Nairn, the Americans took a one-point lead into singles play, their strongest format, and exited with a 10½-9½ loss. Prior to that, the USA last lost in 1996.
"That was a really cool experience to be able to draw back on” said Ernst after cobbling together a 2-under 68 in Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Women’s Open. " We obviously didn't win that week, so there is a little bittersweet feeling with it."
Ernst, who went 2-1-1 in the 2012 Match, thoroughly embraced playing with seven USA teammates for a common cause. Now the third-year professional is grinding to earn a berth on her first United States Solheim Cup squad, which will travel to St. Leon-Rot, Germany, in September to face a European team that has won the last two matches.
"That's definitely one of my top goals for the year,” said Ernst, 23, who won the 2011 NCAA Women’s Championship while playing for LSU. "I'm trying not to think about it too much. I know that I've just got to play solid golf and that's going to take care of itself.
“Obviously if I'm not playing solid golf, I'm not going to be on the team. I'm just trying to take care of everything week by week, day by day, just try to keep improving as the year goes on."
Ernst is currently 13th on the points list that automatically qualifies the top 10 for the team. USA captain Juli Inkster has two captain’s picks and has said she will likely go with Nos. 11 and 12 on the list. Ernst entered this week with 175 points, 29 behind 12th-place Brittany Lang.
So this week is a major championship in a more than one respect. The U.S. Women’s Open, as do the other four majors, offers double Solheim Cup points to those Americans who finish in the top 20. A win would be worth 120 points.
Winning last year’s Portland Classic in a playoff earned Ernst some peace of mind on tour, but she has not parlayed it into the type of 2015 she had hoped for. Still, she has seen improvement.
"I feel like I've started off better than I have the last couple of years,” she said. "Missed a few cuts, more cuts than I wanted to. But I feel like recently, [tying for 13th at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship], I had a good week, really solid week, had a lot of positives to build on from there. The money list, scoring average ... all that is definitely better than it has been the last two years. So I'm just trying to keep putting myself in position. Hopefully I will be there on Sunday.”
Ernst relishes playing old style courses such as this 1920 William Flynn design, but has had to adapt her style of play while not losing her tenacious mindset.
“I used to be a little bit too aggressive,” said Ernst, who hit 13 of 14 fairways and 13 greens in regulation on Thursday. “I used to go at too many pins. Now, if I have 5-iron in my hand and it's a tucked pin, I'll play 10 feet left of the hole instead of going right at it like I used to.
“I drove it today the best I have all year. So that's huge out here.“
Maybe not as huge as those Solheim Cup points may be come Sunday.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.