‘It’s a pretty cool feeling’
LSU duo low-keyed after men’s, women’s championships
There were no wild celebrations after sinking walk-off clinching putts. No, Austin Ernst simply had to be patient. And John Peterson actually started warming up again in case he was forced into a playoff.
“I was real anxious for six hours,” Peterson admitted.
As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers sang, “waiting is the hardest part.”
But when their respective waits were over, both LSU golfers Ernst and Peterson were NCAA champions, giving their school the first such women’s and men’s double in history. “I didn’t know it hadn’t been done until after I did it,” Peterson said. “It’s a pretty cool feeling for us.”
It capped a remarkable 10-day stretch for LSU, a place most people think of as a football power but for now can make the claim that it’s a golf school.
On May 21, Ernst, a 19-year-old freshman from tiny Seneca, S.C., became LSU’s first NCAA individual champ since Earl Stewart won it 70 years prior by winning the women’s Division I title in Bryan, Texas. Her final round included a hole-in-one on No. 2 and made her the first freshman NCAA champ since 1998.
“It still hasn’t hit me that I won or the magnitude of it and what it means,” Ernst said.
The next day, former All-American LSU golfer David Toms, now 44, won the PGA’s Colonial in Fort Worth, winning more than a million dollars for his efforts.
Then on June 2, Peterson, a 22-year-old senior who is from Forth Worth, won the men’s Division I title in Stillwater, Okla.
Toms then called Peterson.
“It was pretty cool when he called to tell me congrats,” Peterson said. “He’s obviously our best alum and has made a ton of money on the PGA Tour and to get a phone call from a guy like that you know that what you did means a lot to the program.”
The respective coaches, Chuck Winstead for the men and Karen Bahnsen for the women are ecstatic, especially Bahnsen, since LSU finished third as a team. And their boss is thrilled.
“It helps justify the renovation we did to the golf course [University Club in Baton Rouge],” LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said with the practicality of an athletic director. “It made all that possible, because it gave them a place to practice that was so much harder and made them better.”
Both showed a lot of poise on and off the course en route to their titles.
Ernst, whose father is a PGA club pro and whose whose brother Drew plays at Coastal Carolina, was mad at herself after the NCAA Regional tournament, because she missed short putts on 17 each of the last two days.
“I felt like I gave away that tournament away,” she said. “It was good that I was mad, because I came into nationals pretty hungry and was feeling very confident and was hitting the ball pretty well.”
To say the least for someone who actually wasn’t feeling that well when the tournament started. She had a cough when they got to the team hotel and senior teammate Megan McChrystal moved to another room. Ernst laughed as she said, “I had a room to myself for five days.”
Good sleep meant good rounds in the only 72-hole tournament the women play all season. She opened with a 72, but then took the lead with a 66. The third round, interrupted twice by rain, saw her shoot 77 over two days, finishing the final four holes the morning of the last round.
Ernst was back at the hotel by 9 a.m. that day and took a nap, “watched the Food Network,” ate lunch and teed off just after 2 p.m., entering the final round in third place.
Ernst said she evaluated the field and figured “I needed to shoot 67 that day to win.”
As it turned out, Ernst shot a 66 and won by three strokes over Arkansas’s Kelly Shean, but it wasn’t that simple.
After a solid start on No. 1, “I made a hole-in-one,” she said casually about the second hole.
“Well, I went nuts. I went crazy. I don’t remember everything I did, actually. I jumped in the air, gave a lot of high fives, and after the crowd died down, I yelled. Then I walked over to my bag and told myself, ‘I need to take a few deep breaths because I have 16 holes left to play.’ ”
Bahnsen, who just finished her 27th year at the helm, smiled when recalling her prodigy’s first hole-in-one. “She looked at me and it was like game on, but I reminded her not to get ahead of herself.”
Ernst kept things going by sinking a 50-plus-foot putt on No. 3. She missed a couple of short putts on 8 and 9, “I could have easily shot a 29,” on the front nine.
What’s more, she had told Bahnsen she didn’t want to know where she stood in the final round. Ernst had a plan and was going to stick with it.
“I didn’t want to put any more pressure on myself. I didn’t want to think about what other people were doing and having it affect me.”
She bogeyed 16 and “I had some pretty big nerves on 17.” But her tee shot was straight and true and all that was left after the round was to see if Shean could catch her.
“We were excited but didn’t want to make it over the top and didn’t want to celebrate because she hadn’t won yet,” Bahnsen said. “At least we didn’t have to sit around all day [like Peterson].”
Ernst called her parents back in South Carolina, did interviews and spent the next hour and a half waiting.
“It was basically at the point where I figured I definitely was going to win. I had a three shot lead and she had three holes to play, so she would have to go birdie-birdie-birdie. And on the final hole, she needed a hole-in-one to win.”
Ernst actually got the word from a reporter that victory was hers.
“It was shock, mainly, but I didn’t jump up and down or anything. I just figured I would win when I finished.”
Peterson would have been glad to wait just an hour and a half after what turned out to be one heck of a long day for him, too.
“I was following her – obviously the whole team was – and when she won we were all really happy for her,” Peterson said. “And I guess it motivated me a little bit to try and get it done.”
On that last day of their tournament, the LSU men ate breakfast as a team just after 6 a.m. Peterson and his teammates were back in the hotel by 2. He opened with a first-round 74, followed that with a course-record 65.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be around a lot of great ball strikers and been in the game a little while, and he hits a golf ball about as straight as a golf ball can be hit,” Winstead said. “And he’s worked incredibly hard the last three years.”
While the women played four rounds, the men’s only had three, since the final eight teams advance to match-play to decide the team championship. LSU finished 21st as a team.
Peterson shot 72 on his third round, capped with a putt that went around the cup and in.
“You just don’t see balls go in the hole like that,” Winstead said.
Peterson’s putt at 18 round and round “entire circumference and you had to have a sense of things were meant to be, that it was almost destiny.”
But destiny was in no hurry.
Back at the hotel, Peterson had to wait nervously and prepare for a possible playoff. He said he couldn’t sleep, watched ESPN instead of the Food Network, got something to eat and started hitting balls on the driving range about 6 p.m.
They were waiting on Patrick Cantlay of UCLA, who followed rounds of 72 and 69 with a 71, coming up one stroke short. He birdied 17 and needed an eagle on 18, and when he birdied, the other LSU Tigers seeked out Peterson.
“I was on the range and coach got a text message and all my teammates came running down the hill.” Peterson said. “They were more excited for me than I was. It was pretty cool to share that with them.”
Which is exactly what Peterson was thinking when he chose LSU.
“I didn’t want to go to a traditional golf power just because. I wanted to do my own thing and kind of help another school that wasn’t doing well and LSU seemed like the right fit.”
Actually, it was more than that. His mother, Jan, graduated from LSU in 1979.
“The whole side of her family is in Louisiana [Jan’s parents live in Baton Rouge], so it was a pretty easy transition for me to go over there,” said Peterson, whose younger siblings, Elizabeth (an LSU cheerleader) and Joel joined him at LSU.
And didn’t hurt any that when Peterson was a young boy and the family lived for a few years in Baton Rouge, his youth golf coach just happened to be Winstead, who six years ago became the LSU head coach.
“To watch a young man who took lessons from me when he was 10 years of age and then to be his college coach the last four years and watch his development, this was very special,” Winstead said.
Just as the men’s team had followed Ernst on their phones 10 days earlier, the LSU women followed Peterson.
“I was following him the entire last day,” said Ernst, who was actually playing a round at the time but watching on NCAA.com. “It’s just great. I was really excited for him. I know when I won the guys were excited for me. That’s just how we are. We’re really close, both teams.”
Ernst and Peterson joined a list of LSU golfing accomplishments that include Fred Haas Jr. winning the NCAA championship in 1937, then-LSU coach Buddy Alexander winning the 1986 men’s U.S. Amateur, and Meredith Duncan winning the 2001 women’s U.S. Amateur.
“The neat thing about our two programs is, and this is the truth, we’re very much a team, men’s and women’s golf,” Bahnsen said.
“A lot of years it wasn’t really like that, so I’m really excited that this was LSU golf and this made history for LSU golf.”
History worth waiting for.