Derek Ernst has a plan when he plays golf. The plan doesn't change, whether he's involved in stroke play or match play.
It's never him against his opponent. It's always him against the golf course.
And that plan has worked out well as Ernst gears up for his senior year at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Earlier this month, the two-time reigning Mountain West Conference player of the year came oh-so-close to nabbing his first major national title, taking second at the U.S. Amateur Public Links in Bandon, Ore.
Ernst and Clemson's Corbin Mills battled throughout a 36-hole final and, in fact, needed a 37th hole to finally decide matters July 2 on the Old Macdonald Course at Bandon Dunes. Ernst erased deficits throughout the day, including coming from four holes down with 11 holes to play to nearly get the win.
All by sticking to the plan.
"I just try to get as many pars as I can, then get a few birdies," Ernst said of his strategy to take what the course gives him. "And that just irritates my opponent. He gets agitated, and that usually means good things for me."
It worked out in stroke play, with Ernst shooting 70-75 to reach match play, where things worked out even better. In the first round of match play, Ernst was 3-down early against Joseph David of Madison, Tenn. He rallied to take a 1-up lead, and though David tied it on the 14th hole, Ernst got the win on the 19th hole.
In the round of 32, Ernst drilled Chris Mory of Haslett, Mich., 5 and 3, followed by a 4-and-3 rout of Alex Edfort of Somerset, N.J. Ernst then nabbed quarterfinal and semifinal wins in the same day, drubbing Daniel Miernicki of Santee, Calif., 6 and 4 and topping Jonathan Randolph 3 and 2 to reach the 36-hole final against mills.
"Most people try to play their opponents, and they base their decisions on what the other guy is doing," Ernst said. "It gets in their head -- they're playing me, but I'm playing the course."
Even though Mills ultimately won the title in a playoff, it probably even bugged him a bit, watching Ernst win five straight holes to pull ahead late in the final. Mills was 4-up as the players made their way around the course a second time, but Ernst claimed holes nine through 13 to take the lead.
"I think I just stayed patient the whole time," Ernst said. "During the first 18 holes, he got it to 3-up, and I got it back to all square, and on the second 18, he got 4-up. I was hitting the ball really good, and I thought that if I just keep doing those things, I knew I was due for some good holes. I got into my zone."
And were it not for an unfortunate bounce off the fairway, Ernst may well have walked off with the trophy. With a 1-up lead as he teed up for the 35th hole of the day, Ernst picked his target and hit a perfect ball -- a ball that somehow hit something and bounced sideways.
"As soon as I hit it, it looked good. I picked up my tee and started walking," he said. "But the ball kicked right, and into a bunker. I don't know what it hit. If it would've stayed in the fairway, I think I could've put it away. I hit the shot I wanted."
Mills won the hole to square the match, and the two halved the final hole of regulation before Mills got the win on the 37th hole with a par putt.
But rather than lament bad luck, Ernst took solace in a great run.
"That's golf. You're gonna have good and bad breaks. They all even out," he said. "I gave it everything I had, and I have no regrets."
He said he now feels even more prepared and eager for his final season with the Rebels.
"I think it gives me a boost of confidence, knowing I can play with all those guys," Ernst said, noting that Randolph -- his semifinal victim -- played in a PGA Tour event following the Public Links tournament. "It gives me confidence that I can play with guys who play on the PGA Tour, and it gives me a good boost of confidence going into my senior year. I'll go try to win some (more) tournaments."
Winning is just what Foothill High School's Taylor Montgomery and Green Valley's Alex Kaui did in mid-June at the Las Vegas Junior Open, an annual staple on the American Junior Golf Association's calendar.
Against top-flight players from around the country, and even a smattering of international players, Montgomery and Kaui -- the reigning boys and girls state high school champions, respectively -- earned their first AJGA crowns.
Montgomery, heading into his junior year, had a steady three rounds at Anthem Country Club, shooting 71-70-71 for a 4-under 212 total and a 3-stroke victory over Troix Tonkham of Arleta, Calif.
The victory capped a sterling four-tournament run for Taylor, who won the regional and state crowns for Foothill, then claimed the Clark County Amateur.
"Winning my fourth in a row is by far the biggest accomplishment I've had," he said.
Kaui, also going into her junior year, ended up in a playoff against a very familiar opponent -- Green Valley teammate Jenny Hahn. Kaui shot 70-72-75, and Hahn shot 74-69-74 as both finished at 1-over 217, seven shots clear of the rest of the field.
Kaui ended up winning the playoff.
"We were going back and forth all day," Kaui said.
Hahn wasn't left without a title, though. Just a week earlier, she played in the Ping Phoenix Junior at Moon Valley Country Club in Phoenix, grabbing her first AJGA championship.
A second-round 68, sandwiched between rounds of 71 and 70, gave her a 7-under 209 total, tied with Lindsey Weaver of Scottsdale, Ariz. Hahn, the 2009 Nevada high school state champ, then birdied the first playoff hole to get the win.
"I wasn't tense at all," she said. "I've been there before. I've played in a playoff before, so I knew what to expect."