By Michael Trostel
BANDON, ORE. (July 2, 2011) -- Corbin Mills parred the first extra playoff hole to defeat Derek Ernst in 37 holes on Saturday to win the 2011 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship contested at 7,016-yard, par-71 Old Macdonald at the Bandon Dunes Golf Resort.
Mills, 21, of Easley, S.C., became the first qualifying medalist to win the APL since fellow Clemson Tiger D.J. Trahan claimed the title in 2000, also in 37 holes at Heron Lakes in Portland, Ore., five hours north of Bandon Dunes. Interestingly, the medalist has gone on to win the championship four out of five times the APL has been held in Oregon.
Despite winds that gusted up to 25 miles per hour, Saturday’s 36-hole finale featured an abundance of birdies by both players – and very few halved holes. Mills and Ernst combined to win 27 of the 37 holes contested.
Trailing for most of the day, Ernst drained a 7-foot par putt to halve the 36th hole and force extra holes.
Playing the par-4 first hole for the third time in Saturday’s 36-hole finale, both competitors hit the fairway with their drives and knocked their approach shots on the front of the green, which featured a back-right hole location.
First to putt, Ernst raced his 50-foot birdie attempt 10 feet past the hole. After Mills lagged his 30-footer within 4 feet, Ernst put what he thought was a good stroke on his par effort only to see it catch the left lip and spin out.
“I thought I made it,” said Ernst. “I hit it right where I wanted to and it just didn’t drop.”
Mills then stepped up and calmly holed his remaining 4-footer to claim the gold medal and possession of the James D. Standish Trophy.
“I had a really good game plan the entire week,” said Mills. “I stuck to it every day, every round, every match, and it kept working out for me.”
Mills birdied the 18th hole of the morning session to take a 2-up lead into lunch.
He built his lead to 4 up and was seemingly in control of the match midway through the afternoon round, when Ernst reeled off wins at five consecutive holes to take a 1-up lead with five to play.
“I kept telling myself that I was still in it,” said Ernst, who did not lead until the 31st hole of the match. “I was down, but I still believed I could pull it off.”
After making a slight alignment adjustment by opening his shoulders a bit, Ernst went on a furious charge.
First, he drove the green on the downwind 343-yard, par-4 ninth, the players’ 27th hole, and two-putted for birdie. After Ernst won the 10th and 11th with pars when Mills found trouble off the tee, Ernst nearly aced the 237-yard, par-3 12th, hitting a 5-iron within 6 inches of the hole for a conceded birdie to tie the match. It would have been his second hole-in-one of the week, as he aced the par-4 eighth hole at Bandon Trails in his first-round match on Wednesday.
On the following hole, with Mills in good position off the tee, Ernst stuck a wedge to 2 feet for a tap-in birdie for his first lead of the day.
Mills proved resilient, however, getting up-and-down from the fescue on the par-5 15th to square the match. He punctuated his 15-foot birdie putt with a fist pump. He credited his turnaround with a change in tempo.
“It took me until like 14 to realize, okay, I've got to slow this down,” said Mills. “This whole week my deal had been [to play quickly]. But I slowed down, regrouped and I made a four‑footer for par on 14 to halve the hole. Then the big win on 15 really got the momentum going.”
Ernst won the 16th with par, but found three separate bunkers on the par-5, 17th and eventually conceded the hole to Mills, who had hit the green in two, to square the match again.
Mills overcame Ernst and five other match play competitors to win the title, but he also had to contend with several health issues – though outsiders might not have known it from his exceptional play throughout the week.
First, Mills developed an ear infection two days before leaving for Bandon Dunes. Then, he missed his scheduled flight from South Carolina to Oregon. He was able to catch a flight the following day, but developed pink eye, for which he is still taking antibiotics.
“I haven’t been able to hear out of my left ear the whole week,” said Mills. “I don’t know if all this had me in some sort of zone, but whatever it was, [it worked].”
Mills spent part of his youth in Italy because his parents were missionaries. He played golf because he was too big for other sports like soccer.
Though his parents and many friends from his native South Carolina could not attend Saturday’s 36-hole final, Mills has received an outpouring of support from his fan club.
“The past two or three days I've had so much support from back home. All of my friends, all of my family, they're just so supportive. I've got a million texts and missed calls, everything right now.”
The first hole stymied Ernst all day. In both the morning round and playoff, he three-putted for bogey. In the afternoon round, he two-putted from 40 feet to save a double bogey and halved the hole.
“It’s funny, I played that hole pretty well all week,” said Ernst. “But today was a different story. It was a tough hole location with the wind, but I needed to do better.”
Ernst, the reigning Mountain West Conference champion from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, is the second Running Rebel to finish runner-up at the APL in the last 17 years. Chris Riley is the other. Fellow Rebel Ryan Moore won the APL in 2002 and 2004.
The 2011 APL was Ernst’s eighth USGA championship, a total which includes the last four U.S. Amateurs. By making the APL final, he is ensured a spot in this year’s Amateur (held Aug. 22-28 at Erin Hills), an exemption from local qualifying for next year’s U.S. Open (provided he remains an amateur), a three-year exemption for the APL and a silver medal.
For his victory, Mills will receive a 10-year APL exemption, exemptions into the next two U.S. Amateurs, a three-year exemption from local U.S. Open qualifying (provided he remains an amateur) and a likely invitation to the 2012 Masters Tournament.
Mills’ hometown is just 150 minutes away from Augusta and though he’s been there as a spectator, he relishes the opportunity to tee it up among the game’s greats.
“It’s always been kind of a dream,” said Mills.
This year’s APL was played concurrently at Bandon Dunes with the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. The WAPL field also played its 36-hole final at Old Macdonald on Saturday. Brianna Do defeated Marissa Dodd, 1 up.
The APL and WAPL are two of the 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association.