Cinderella story, outta nowhere: Derek Ernst is the stuff of movies

It’s true. Those rental car drop fees of $1,000 can be a killer.

Funny how a 6-iron from 192 yards away in the rain and wind can alter a guy’s perspective on things.

“I’m still not going pay that kind of drop fee,” Derek Ernst said.

Other than that, his life changed forever over the weekend.

It’s a feel-good story that doesn’t find the sports page every day: A 22-year old kid who had to grind his way onto the PGA Tour, who has to survive all four stages of qualifying school, who was ranked 1,207th as recently as last week, who made the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow as the fourth alternate, shocking himself and the entire field in North Carolina by winning the event in a one-hole playoff.

Stuff of movies.

Stuff of uncanny circumstance.

“Everything is still going a million miles an hour,” Ernst said Wednesday. “It has been a crazy last few days. We’re out here to win golf tournaments first and foremost, but it’s still weird to think I was on my way to a Web.com tournament last week and instead won on the PGA Tour.

“But nothing has ever been given to me. My dad taught me a long time ago that I would have to earn anything I got. It’s how I embrace life. This makes all the hard work and dedication worth it. I earned it.”

His college coach at UNLV likened the victory to a famous thoroughbred race, to the underdog horse (Seabiscuit) opposing the world’s best (War Admiral), looking him in the eye and not blinking. Dwaine Knight has built a Hall of Fame coaching career with the Rebels by producing golfers capable of not only making the professional ranks, but succeeding once there.

But it’s not all Tiger and Phil and Rory and roses for most.

It can be a lonely and expensive existence for rookies, life on the fringe of the PGA Tour, where a handful of shots over a season can mean the difference between keeping one’s card and being reduced to competing on a far less and lucrative tour.

It costs over $100,000 minimum to annually compete on the PGA Tour, and those teeing off weekly aren’t guaranteed a penny of prize money.

Translation: A massive weight has been lifted from Ernst’s shoulders.

“There is a lot less pressure now knowing I am guaranteed a job out here the next two years,” he said. “At the beginning of the year, my only goal was to finish being ranked among the top 125 and keep my card. But now that I have won, and more people know who I am, it will be easier to give back and influence others in the community.”

All because of this: He didn’t spend much time Sunday staring at the numbers of an electronic scoreboard, didn’t get caught up in the fact he was a few shots off the lead coming down the stretch and everyone was chasing a guy named Mickelson.

The birdie on 18, made possible by that approach from 192 yards that landed 4 feet from the hole, earned Ernst a playoff against David Lynn of England.

The two returned to 18, the rain began to fall harder and Ernst calmly hit a 3-iron for his second shot to 15 feet left of the flag.

A par putt and few minutes later, he was $1.2 million richer.

“I’ve seen him make big shots like that coming down the line in college, but to be able to hit them (on tour) and that stage is a much different thing,” Knight said. “This will be a whirlwind time for him, but I think he will handle it well. He’s a gym rat. He just loves to play golf. He has never had this kind of money. He doesn’t come from money. I think he will put that part of it in perspective and that our other (alums) who have won on tour will help him guide him along a bit also.”

Ernst as much as any of them defines UNLV golf. Adam Scott won the Masters last month and such a result will only strengthen what are annually impressive recruiting hauls for the Rebels, but I’m not sure Scott was in school long enough to know Thomas & Mack Center from the Lied Athletic Complex.

Ernst played four years at UNLV, earning All-American honors. He was a consistent presence, much like that of Chris Riley and Charley Hoffman.

It helps Knight’s program that the letters UNLV adorned Ernst’s bag over the weekend and were shown on national television, that when the rains came, he slipped on a Rebels pullover with UNLV down one sleeve.

Stories like this always help: That when Knight reached Ernst via telephone in March, the golfer didn’t believe he would make the field at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., so instead drove to Ponte Vedra to check out the TPC Sawgrass course, site of the Players Championship.

“Derek told me, ‘Some day, I’m going to get to play here,’” Knight said.

Ernst teed off Thursday morning in a group that included major champions Angel Cabrera and Louis Oosthuizen.

Ernst shot 2-over par 74 for the round.

In the Players Championship.

At TPC Sawgrass.

Some day became a few months.

Stuff of movies, is right.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.