Derek Ernst has been at UNLV less than two years, but the sophomore golfer from Clovis, Calif., already has earned his "Stripes."
Ernst's ability to hit the ball far and down the middle early in his freshman season caught the attention of former teammate Seung-su Han, who told Ernst that he had "striped the ball" and he now would be referred to as "Stripes." The nickname stuck, and when UNLV tees off today at the Southern Highlands Collegiate Masters, Stripes will lead the way.
"Last year, I really didn't have any expectations. This year, I set specific goals for myself," said Ernst, UNLV's No. 1 player, who with his teammates will attempt to win their third straight title in the 54-hole event, which runs through Sunday.
Ernst set his sights on a top-15 finish in every tournament and winning at least three individual titles. He's on track with two victories in the fall at the William H. Tucker Invitational and the Herb Wimberly Intercollegiate. His worst finish in seven events this year was a tie for 29th at last month's Arizona Intercollegiate, where he shot par over three rounds.
Last week, he was selected the Mountain West Conference's Golfer of the Month for February.
"It was a cool honor," Ernst said. "But you want to be the best and win everything you can."
UNLV coach Dwaine Knight knew that was the kind of player he was getting when he recruited Ernst, a two-time Northern California Junior Player of the Year.
"He never concedes anything," Knight said. "He's been hitting the ball super since he got here. But his short game is better, and he's gotten bigger and stronger, and he's hitting the ball a little longer."
Ernst credits work he put in over the winter break at home with teaching pros Aaron Terry and Tommy Masters for contributing to his progress.
"I believe in myself," Ernst said. "I never play worried. I try to focus on the process, not the result."
Last year, UNLV trailed top-seeded Oklahoma State by 12 shots entering the final round at Southern Highlands. The Rebels wound up winning by one stroke.
Knight said for UNLV to repeat, the Rebels better follow Ernst's lead and keep the ball on the fairway. The recent wet weather has allowed the rough to grow more than usual, and if the ball lands there, it's going to make it tough to score well.
"The greens are lightning-fast, and with the longer rough, it's going to put a premium on shot-making," Knight said. "We've been working on hitting greens and making sure we land the ball in the right spots."
The Rebels, ranked No. 18 in the Golfstat collegiate poll, will play today's first round with Oklahoma State, the nation's top-ranked team, No. 4 Texas and No. 5 Florida. Eleven top-20 teams are in the 15-team field.
"Whoever wins this tournament will have to play awfully well," Knight said.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913.