OCALA, FLORIDA | Few things focus the mind and heighten the senses like a treacherous road never traveled, even if you’ve driven down curling paths before.
Austin Ernst has won twice in her eight-year career on the LPGA Tour. She will almost certainly pass the four-million-dollar mark in career earnings by the summer. And she has hit quality shots under pressure on a winning U.S. Solheim Cup team. As pressure situations go, she’s been there, plenty. But there is one road Ernst has never traveled. She has never led or shared the lead after the second round of an LPGA Tour event. She’s only led after the third round once, and that was because one of her victories, the 2020 Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G, was a 54-hole event.
“Actually, I didn’t know that,” Ernst said with a big smile after shooting her second consecutive 67. “But I think it's the same (approach) that I took from yesterday going into today. Obviously, I started today with a lead and I saw Carlota (Ciganda) shot 7-under (65) so you knew there were birdies out there.”
She made five birdies with no bogeys on Friday, relying on exceptional ball-striking. In her shot-by-shot recap of the round, the birdie putts she listed ranged in length from two to 20 feet. Nothing longer.
“Probably made two putts over 25 feet yesterday and today, couldn't quite get the putter working early,” she said. “But I had a lot of really good looks inside 15 feet. I hit good putts and my speed was good all day. So, I had a lot of easy pars. It's nice when you give yourself a lot of good looks and come away making a few of them.”
Ernst has a good feel for this golf course. It fits her eye. The two years that the Coates Championship was held at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club, she finished 13th and 9th. She’s only gotten better since then.
“Pretty much every hole I hit it close, I hit a wedge of some sort,” she said of her course management. “So, you really kind of need to be aggressive off the tee to be able to get those numbers. Then you kind of know there are some holes that it's just so hard to hold the green. Some of the par-3s, No. 11, for example, with the pin in the middle was almost impossible to get it to stay on the green.
“When I knew I didn't have a good number or a full number or as much green to work with, I placed it in a good spot just over the green or on the right side of the green, a place where I still had a look at birdie and I didn't have to work very hard.”
That is veteran Friday play, view the wedges as your scoring clubs, avoid big numbers and leave yourself a lot of stress-free pars.
“My distance control has been good, so I've kind of been able to attack it where I've had those good numbers,” Ernst said. “Where I've had wedge opportunities, I've been able to make a few birdies.
“That's been something I've learned over time. It's just one of those things now I kind of know, especially with the greens firm. I know how much the ball is going to release, typically. I know if I've got a pin that's tucked and I don't have a good number that I should hit it 15 feet right of the hole instead of trying to go right at it and end up pinning it in a bunker or somewhere that's not a great place.”
That one quote contains a masterclass of knowledge that every golfer, regardless of skill level, should memorize. Take advantage where you can. But sometimes you need to forget there’s a flagstick on the green and hit it somewhere safe.
“I think, now, I know when and where to pick apart a golf course,” Ernst said. “I'm in my eighth year on tour, so that's kind of something I've learned over time.”
At 29, Ernst is a golfer, not someone who plays golf. She is far more mature than she was in 2013, fresh out of LSU with an NCAA Individual Championship on her résumé. She’s more patient and a much better strategist. When the weather turns nasty, as is projected on Saturday, she will draw on her experience and maturity as well as the keen insights she gets from her brother, Drew, who has been on her bag since midway through her rookie year.
“He talks to me, kind of knows what to say,” she said. “And I think the fact that he played (professional golf) is big. He kind of knows what's going through my head without me telling him. Part brother, part competitive golfer. I think that is what's so nice.
“I know if I have a question on a shot or putt, whatever, I can bounce it off him. He's going to be able to help me a lot.
“The weather will be a little tougher (tomorrow) but when I have good numbers, when I have opportunities, I'm going to attack the golf course. And when I need to dial it back a little bit, then I'll just kind of pick my spots.”
With that attitude and experience, there is no road that Ernst can’t travel with confidence.