Arnold Palmer once said, “winning isn’t everything, but wanting it is.”
That was an instinct that came naturally for Austin Ernst.
The native of South Carolina grew up in a competitive household. Her father, Mark, is a PGA Professional and her older brother, Drew, is also a golfer. The drive to keep up with an older sibling is a powerful one and a theme among some of the most successful players on the LPGA Tour.
Brooke Henderson, who is seven years younger than sister Brittany, was motivated to beat her big sister, who also played professional golf. That desire lifted Brooke to No. 2 in the world and to more victories than any other Canadian golfer in history. Nelly Korda, who is six years younger than sister Jessica Korda, was driven to keep up with her older sibling on Tour. Nelly has become the top-ranked American in the world.
As a young girl, Ernst wanted to keep up with her brother too.
“Growing up with an older brother makes you pretty competitive,” Ernst told LPGA.com. “Both my parents are competitive, so I think playing different sports growing up I’ve always wanted to win.”
But wanting to win and knowing how to do it are two very different things. At the age of 12, Ernst, who played a variety of sports growing up, committed to playing golf full time. And she quickly figured out what it took to be successful.
In 2007, at the age of 15, she won South Carolina’s state championship. Four years later, as a freshman at Louisiana State University, she won the individual title at the NCAA Division I National Championship. It was the first time in the program’s 32-year history that a woman won the title. Each win created positive memories in Ernst’s mind. As they compounded, they created a catalog of her successes on the golf course and she would draw on them when she was in contention. Her confidence grew in her knowledge that she not only had the ability to compete, but to win at each level of the game. Ernst spent just two years at LSU and, in 2012, earned her Tour Card at the LPGA Qualifying Tournament.
“I think every level that I played on, junior golf then college golf, I learned how to win pretty early. I won in college. That gave me a lot of confidence leading into professional golf,” Ernst said. “Winning in college and being able to come out [on Tour] and know I was one of the top amateur players, one of the top college players, definitely helped.”
That self-confidence led to a smooth transition from the amateur to professional ranks. She made the cut in 10 of 22 events and recorded two top-10 finishes in her first year on Tour. While playing collegiately gives soon-to-be pros a taste of life on the road, the schedule isn’t nearly as extensive as the one players encounter upon joining the LPGA Tour. But it took Ernst just 18 months to get her maiden win at the 2014 Portland Classic presented by Cambia Health Solutions. She won in a playoff by defeating In-Kyung Kim on the first extra hole at Columbia Edgewater Country Club. Fittingly, Ernst’s brother was on her bag for her first professional win.
While Ernst quickly found success, subsequent wins were slow to follow. But during the wait, the 29-year-old learned perhaps her most valuable lesson and one she wished she would have known as a young rookie.
“When I was 21, the biggest difference between myself then and now is I manage myself a lot better when I don't quite have it,” Ernst said about learning to contend without her A-game. “If I had learned that a little bit earlier, I’d probably [have] made a few more cuts in my career and contended earlier.”
Weeks, then months, then years ticked by after Ernst’s first win on Tour. But her desire to win never faded. If anything, it intensified, having already experienced what it was like to succeed on the biggest stage in the women’s game.
“I’m super competitive and I want to win every week, so It’s pretty easy to keep me motivated to keep winning,” Ernst said. “Once you get a taste of winning, that’s all you want to do.”
In 2020, six years after her win in Portland, Ernst earned her second victory at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship presented by P&G. While her first victory came in a nail-biting playoff, she built herself a cushion for her second win, pulling two strokes ahead of Anna Nordqvist. And then, just nine months later, she won for a third time on Tour at the LPGA Drive on Championship presented by Volvik at Golden Ocala. That time she won by five strokes. Her brother, Drew, was on the bag for both wins.
“I’ve won in a lot of different ways now,” Ernst said, “I have different things to draw back on and get confidence from, especially when I’m in contention.”
Ernst’s initial desire to want to win, to keep up with her father and brother on the course, fueled her early success in the game. But it was what she learned from those wins as a young girl, as a college athlete and now as a professional that unlocked her true potential.
“You learn what you’ve got under the gun,” Ernst said about winning under pressure. “I learned how to pull shots off in the heat of the moment and even when you’re nervous you can still hit very good golf shots.”
For Arnold Palmer, wanting to win was everything. But for Austin Ernst, learning to do it has meant even more.