South Carolina’s women’s golf profile is on the rise

April 27, 2017; Irving, TX, USA Austin Ernst tees off on the 10th hole during the first round of the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, TX. Special to S-T/Ray Carlin
April 27, 2017; Irving, TX, USA Austin Ernst tees off on the 10th hole during the first round of the Volunteers of America Texas Shootout at Las Colinas Country Club in Irving, TX. Special to S-T/Ray Carlin Special to McClatchy Newspapers

Austin Ernst stroked the birdie putt on the final hole that, in hindsight, would have secured a spot in a playoff for an LPGA major championship title. Alas, the ball twisted away from the cup at the last moment, and she settled to a share of second place.

Disappointed? Yes. But, she said, “I came away with something to build on for the future.”

The building had to wait.

After that finish in the Evian Championship in France in September, she missed the Tour’s fall Asian Swing after being diagnosed with mononucleosis and played only in the season finale, the Tour Championship.

Nevertheless, her 2018 — 20th in earnings and climbing to 35th in the world rankings — takes a place among the best LPGA seasons by a South Carolinian since the halcyon days of Hall of Famer Beth Daniel.

She is the only Palmetto State native to win an LPGA tournament since the last of Daniel’s 33 triumphs in 2003 — an oddity considering South Carolina’s passion for the game.

That statistic, the state’s dearth of LPGA titles, will soon change, Palmetto State officials and professionals predict. Both the number and the quality in the junior programs continually grow, and PGA pro Tom Mason sees an explosion in talent.

“Their ability is extraordinary,” Mason, one of the state’s top advocates for junior golf and owner of the Par Tee Golf Center, said.

Joining Ernst on the LPGA Tour in 2019 will be Lexington’s Lauren Stephenson, perhaps the state’s most decorated female amateur since Daniel almost 50 years ago. Although she failed to keep her playing card, Katelyn Dambaugh (Goose Creek) spent 2018 on the LPGA Tour, a year after a record-breaking career at USC. She will play on the Symetra Tour next year and, Gamecocks coach Kalen Anderson said, “can’t miss” rejoining the major league.

Add players in the college programs — USC, Clemson and Furman are currently ranked in the top 26 nationally — and the possibilities increase. Although only a handful of the collegians are, for now, native South Carolinians, their influence on the state juniors will be enormous.

The 2019 Tour will include four former USC players, rookie Sarah Schmelzel and veterans Katie Burnett, Kristy McPherson and Nanna Madsen. Mi Hyang Lee, a native of Korea who has a home in Blythewood, owns two LPGA tourney titles and increases the strength of the state contingent. Burnett, McPherson and Madsen had to regain their playing status in qualifying school.

The thing is, the state has always had representation on the LPGA Tour, but the depth in recent years seldom matched 2019’s potential. McPherson, a Conway native who joined the tour in 2004, is a former Solheim Cup player who has earned more than $2 million in her career, and Reilley Rankin, from Hilton Head, had four top-10 in majors early in her career.

“These things run in cycles,” said Clarissa Childs, executive director of the Women’s South Carolina Golf Association who spent seven years on the LPGA Tour. “We have several girls in the ninth- and 10th-grade range who are going to be special. Plus, we had two (Murrells Inlet’s Smith Knaffle with USC and West Columbia’s Jensen Castle with Kentucky) to sign with SEC teams recently and (Lexington’s) Gracyn Burgess is playing as a freshman at Clemson.”

But officials point out that there are no guarantees.

“The step between college golf and the pros is enormous,” Childs said. “A lot of players who were outstanding in college struggle to reach the next level.”

The world rankings illustrate the challenge. Golf is an international game and Asian players dominate. Lexi Thompson, at No. 5, is the only player from the United States in the top 12. Ernst, at No. 35, is the tenth U.S. player in the standings.

What’s important to succeed is quality competition, said Ernst, a Greenville native who grew up in Seneca and won the NCAA individual title at Louisiana State her freshman year.

“I played SCJGA events, then CGA and AJGA tournaments,” she said. “The SCGA does a wonderful job. You need competition to improve, and those organizations provide that with events all summer and into the fall. That’s how you learn to play and hopefully learn how to win. Each step up is tougher competition and the foundation you receive is so important.

“The commitment is vital, but you see that in any sport or, for that matter, throughout life. You make sure what you want to do and you work at it.”

More opportunities for competition are perhaps the biggest reason for improvement in the girls’ game. Cecelia Barksdale Fournil, an insurance executive who owns multiple Columbia city titles, twice won the Women’s State Amateur and competed in USGA championships, talked earlier this year about having only four or five tournaments for girls about 20 years ago.

“We’ve had players like Austin (Ernst) and Kristy (McPherson) through the years, but the girls’ game is really growing,” said Biff Lathrop, executive director of the South Carolina Golf Association. “That parallels the emphasis the organizations have placed on junior programs in recent years.

“Clarissa is a former tour player and knows the importance of competition and the opportunities to improve. She brought that mindset to the WSCGA and you see they are added new events all the time.”

Columbia area pro Jimmy Koosa, one of Dustin Johnson’s first instructors, talked about commitment to improve and the importance of a strong foundation in fundamentals, and Austin Ernst received that from her dad, PGA pro Mark Ernst.

“He was always there to answer questions or help me, but I never HAD to play golf,” Austin Ernst said. “He gave me the fundamentals, but he didn’t push, and I think that helped. I played other sports growing up before I decided that golf would be best for me in the long run.”

In addition to organized events, she received plenty of competition from her brother, Drew, the 2010 State Amateur champion who played a Coastal Carolina and on professional mini-tours. “He used to win when we were kids, but I caught up (playing from different tees),” Austin said. “He pushed me to work harder to get better and I had a practice buddy anytime I wanted to play.”

Drew is now his sister’s caddie, and Austin said, “He tells me what I need to hear. He knows how to talk to me and when to talk to me.”

Her junior golf success translated into a scholarship from LSU and, she said, “Being away from home was good for me in that it helped me grow as a person. That’s part of the transition from college to the pros. You’re playing courses you don’t know, you’re playing more than you’re used to, and you’re traveling mostly on your own. It’s new, and it takes time to adjust.”

Winning the NCAA title her freshman year earned an invitation to the Kraft-Nabisco tournament, an LPGA major now named the ANA Inspiration, as an amateur and there she learned she could compete at a higher level.

“I did not play well the first nine holes or the last five holes, and I still finished something like 45th,” Ernst said. “I thought afterward, ‘If had played well on those 14 holes, I would have been in, like, the top 10.’ I believed after that I could play successfully at the highest level.”

After two years at LSU, she took the fall semester off from school, advanced through two stages of LPGA qualifying as an amateur before turning professional and earning a full playing card with an 11th-place finish in the final tournament.

“That turned out to be a good decision for me,” she said. “I think potential pros have to weigh things and look at them realistically. I can’t tell someone to turn pro or not; they have to make that decision for themselves, when they think they’re ready. Stay in college and you have your education to fall back on. My game was ready, but if you go too early, you can get shell-shocked.”

Ernst’s climb in golf includes berths on the Curtis Cup, Spirit Cup, in the World Amateur and the Solheim Cup, experiences she relishes.

“You can’t describe the feeling in terms of emotion to be playing for your country,” she said. “Yes, there’s pressure, but that’s what you work for. You want to be in that moment.”

Those moments are becoming more frequent. She won her LPGA tournament in 2014 in Portland, Ore., and her performances suggest more will come. Being in position at the Evian, a major championship, this year fuels her competitive fire.

“I know when I have a chance to win and have to hit a great shot, my hands are shaking,” Ernst said. “That what you play for. It’s so much fun to be in position to do great.”

Although mononucleosis delayed her quest to build on the strong Evian performance that included a bogey-free 68 in the final round, she looks forward to the 2019 season. And she will have company in the South Carolina contingent, which has potential to be the strongest in years.