Austin Ernst grew up with golf. Her father, Mark Ernst, is the head professional at Cross Creek Plantation, and her brother, Drew, has caddied for her on the LPGA Tour. The 2011 NCAA individual champion from LSU qualified for the LPGA on her first attempt in 2012 and won her first event, the Portland Classic, in 2014. Ernst talks about why it's so hard to win on the women's tour and why she's dying to make the 2017 U.S. Solheim Cup team.
How'd you get started in the game?
My dad has been a PGA club pro for about 30 years, and he's been at the same course for 20. So I literally grew up around the game. I remember going out as a kid and hanging out, especially in the summers. My brother played golf as well. When my brother – he's a little bit older than me – was traveling with my mom, I'd spend all day at the course with my dad. I’d get to go play with the ladies group on Thursday mornings and the cart boys could go play Thursday afternoons, so I'd play 36 holes on Thursdays during the summer. I loved it. It turned out that now I get to do it for a living!
What was it like having a sibling at home who also played golf? Was it super competitive?
It was awesome. I always had somebody to play with. We didn't have a lot of kids in our hometown that played golf, so I always had a built-in playing partner at home and golfing partner out on the course. He actually caddies for me now, so we've kind of carried that on; he's caddied for the last three years. It's been a lot of fun traveling around with him. He doesn't play as much now, but he definitely helped me grow as a player…and now having someone of that caliber on your golf bag definitely helps too.
Tell me about your first LPGA win at the 2014 Portland Classic.
To get that win in Portland was special. It was my second year [on tour] so to get it early, it gave me a lot of confidence. You don’t get a lot of wins out here. It's getting tougher and tougher. To be able to share that with Drew and getting it early, it helped solidify my position out here. It's easy to get down on yourself in professional golf because you win one out of every…whatever events. If you get a win a year you're having a pretty good season. It definitely gives me confidence to look back on every time I’m in contention, that I’ve got it done before.
What's the one thing you're really focused on in your game?
I'm always working on short game. That's the difference right now between where I'm finishing in tournaments and being in contention. I haven't had the season I've wanted to have, but it's been one of those frustrating years where if I can get one or two putts to fall a round, which, where I've been hitting it has been pretty easy to do, then it's the difference between me finishing 30th and finishing fifth or winning. It feels like it’s coming around. It's just one of those things where you just have to stay patient.
You just missed out on a place on the 2015 Solheim Cup team. How has that motivated you for 2017?
I would love nothing more than to be on the next Solheim Cup team. I really, really wanted to be on the last one and just missed out. Didn't make it and didn't get the pick. But I watched it from home and seeing them come back…it's all country pride. You get to play for your country that week, and now with the Olympics you'd get to do it too, but that's different because you're playing with a team at Solheim. Everyone that's played, they say it's the best week of their career. So I'm definitely looking forward to trying to make that team in ’17.
Speaking of the Olympics, what does it mean for the game to have golf back on a truly international stage?
More people will see it. Especially with us, we’re not on network TV every week…we're on Golf Channel a lot, but some people don't have Golf Channel. You'll get to see a lot of very quality golfers, and same thing with the guys, but for us we'll get to showcase how global we already are and a lot of players who played in the Olympics already play on the LPGA tour. It'll give viewers a chance to see what we can really do.
So would you rather win a gold medal, a Solheim Cup or a major?
All three? [Laughs] I would prefer to win a major, especially the U.S. Open. I remember as a little kid, I was hitting putts to win the U.S. Open on the putting green. The Olympics would be awesome as something to look back on as an athlete, but as a golfer specifically, the U.S. Open, a major is what I've always dreamed of winning.
Can LPGA players do more to advance their game, or are they doing enough as it is?
You know, obviously as players, if we play good golf, everybody wants to see a good show. That's why you watch sports - you want to see that drama. I think the better we can play, the more appealing we are. The [ANA Inspiration] with Lydia [Ko] and Ariya [Jutanugarn] coming down the stretch, that's good TV. That's the only thing I think we can do. As a brand, the LPGA players, we do a pretty good job in pro-ams and that kind of thing, I think that's a great selling point for us. But I think, as good of golf as we play, continuing to do that, more people will start paying attention.
Does the steep competition on tour get in the way of your friendships?
Nah. Me and Jessica [Korda], we've gotten where we play a match every week for dinner. we'll play on Tuesdays, at least nine holes. I've never really had a problem separating competition and friendships. At the end of the day, we all want to beat each other. [Laughs] We all want bragging rights at dinner or wherever, but we’re all pulling for each other. If we’re not playing or I'm not in contention, then I want one of my friends to win. It's cool to have that competition between each other because we’re pushing each other and spending every day together, essentially, out here.
So who's bought more dinners?
I'm two for three. Jess has owed me two dinners. [Laughs] No dinner has been expensive. Last time she was talking about one of our other friends going to Ruth's Chris [Steak House], and I was like, "Hey, we can go there!" [Laughs] It hasn't been crazy.
What's something people don't know about players on the LPGA?
I think we're better than they think we are. You look at what Lydia has done at such a young age and what so many other players are doing, we're a lot deeper than people think. A lot of people just kind of look and don't realize how good we are out here and how much better we're getting. I think our game is very comparable to the average golfer. They can look at us and they can say, "Austin is hitting her drive 260 yards, that's how far I hit my drive." You play with guys in the pro-am all the time that get mad at us because we hit it past them. [Laughs]. And they then say, "Oh wow, the women are shooting 20-under from where we're playing from. That's pretty good!" [Laughs]
What's one thing you would take away from your time on tour thus far?
If I could take one thing away, it's that it can always be better. I've shot low rounds that can always be better, but it's a growing process. You always learn something from a round, some of those more painful to learn than others, but I feel like I've progressed every year and gotten a little bit better. I hope I can continue to get better as time goes on.