Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories on players making their first appearances at the Bridgestone Invitational. Coming Tuesday: Ken Duke and Billy Horschel
BETHESDA, MD.: Derek Ernst knows he was millimeters away from having a glass right eye.
But the 23-year-old PGA Tour rookie was only in second grade when his project to make a Valentine’s Day present for his mother went horribly wrong. He doesn’t remember how much clearer things were before the accident that left him with 10 stitches down the middle of his cornea.
He does realize that after winning the Wells Fargo Championship, which earned him his first appearance in this week’s $8.75 million World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, some will consider him an inspiration.
“Everyone’s got something that happened in their past that maybe changed or altered their future a little bit,” Ernst said. “This is just one of the things that has altered mine.”
Playing professional golf with good vision is challenging enough. But if Ernst covers his left eye, “everything is super blurry,” he said, and past 30 yards nothing is distinguishable, even while wearing contacts. He considers himself fortunate he’s not a lefty because of how little he would see while rotating his head during his swing.
His mother, Dawn, said all the Ernsts wear “Coke bottle” glasses. Ernst said the vision in his right eye measures a negative 5.9, and his left is not much better, a negative 5.8.
“If I took my contacts out right now, I would not be able to walk around. My eyes are that bad,” Ernst said last month before competing in the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club.
“Basically what’s in my eye [is] a thick scar. But I’m thankful that I have an eye and I don’t have a glass I have to pop in and out. That would be kind of grody.”
His memories are not picture-perfect, but he remembers in vivid detail the events of the Valentine’s Day that changed his life.
Growing up in Fresno, Calif., Ernst loved building things. So his parents bought him a toy tool kit with a real saw that Derek described as “tiny and not too sharp.”
He was making his mother a fence and was going to put bears inside it. He got halfway through a piece of PVC pipe before the saw got stuck. Impatient and looking for a shortcut, he slammed the pipe on the ground to break it in half. It was not the saw that hit him; it ricocheted in front of him.
“I look up and voom, here comes the pipe,” Ernst said.
He ran from the driveway, through the garage and into the backyard. Hiding her anxiety, Dawn Ernst gave Derek ice for the eye while she tried to find a neighbor to watch her two younger daughters, Shawna and Brianna, so she and Ernst could head to the emergency room.
“My husband is the one who goes crazy,” Dawn Ernst said of Mark, in the insurance business. “I have to be the calm one and just pray everything will be OK. I’m trying to figure out where to put his sisters and Derek is standing there with ice on his eye, holding it closed. It doesn’t bleed. It was a crazy day.”
At 1 a.m., Ernst had surgery. He remained in the hospital for three days, his mother by his side every minute.
About three weeks later, Ernst returned to school and spoke in front of his second-grade classmates, telling them what happened. He wore “a pirate patch” over his eye for at least a week, but no one teased him.
“When you’re in second grade, it’s almost like, ‘Gosh, there’s that poor kid,’ ” he said. “When I got to high school they had plenty of other things to make fun of me about.”
But Ernst said his doctor never gave him any sports limitations. He continued to play baseball until the eighth grade, when he chose golf because the seasons overlapped.
A 2012 graduate of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Ernst earned his spot on the PGA Tour in 2013 with a tie for 17th in qualifying school.
He had only one tour start before getting his card. He missed the cut in five of his first seven tournaments before his stunning breakthrough at the Wells Fargo, where he got into the field as the fourth alternate and defeated journeyman David Lynn in a playoff. He earned $1.2 million and a two-year exemption on the tour.
Even though she and daughter Shawna flew from their home in Sacramento to surprise Ernst for the final two rounds in Charlotte, Dawn Ernst still marvels at the triumph.
“I’m still pinching myself. It doesn’t seem real,” Dawn Ernst said in the Congressional clubhouse. “I was there when the trophy came to his apartment. It happened to come on his birthday. We put it right there in the middle of his table.”
She thought back to the day of her son’s accident and conceded that she worried that the eye injury would be a hindrance.
“I still even wonder sometimes,” she said. “We’ve never really talked about it. I always wondered, ‘What if he had both eyes? Would his putting be better? Would his distance be better?’ Who knows?’’
Ernst doesn’t need help from caddie Aaron Terry to line up putts.
“He would be just fine without me, but sometimes it’s nice to have a second opinion on a putt because maybe his depth perception is not perfect,” Terry said at Congressional. “But he does well by himself. He can play golf without anybody.”
Ernst said there has never been a day when he thought his vision problem would prevent him from reaching the PGA Tour.
“It [the accident] happened when I was really young,” he said. “I never thought about it. Everyone goes, ‘How do you see?’ This is how I think everyone sees.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.