Ernst loses element of surprise

Derek Ernst will return to the Wells Fargo Championship as a known quantity and defending champion after he took his chance last year.

The 23-year-old was then ranked 1,207 in the world and had been scheduled to play in the Tour, but when a number of players withdrew from the tournament in Charlotte, Ernst changed his plans and claimed a tee time, going on to win his first PGA Tour event after defeating David Lynn in a play-off.

Since then, Ernst has missed 11 of his next 15 cuts and he still has not recorded another top 25 finish.

That has made the California-born player reassess his game and as a result he started working with swing coach Greg LaBelle six months ago.

LaBelle had a lot to work on and told "The biggest thing, right away, was just getting his fundamentals back.

"Setup, alignment, posture, they were all kind of out of whack.

"I don't believe in some sort of 'swing key' magic. Golf is complicated enough.

"You've got a guy who has an extreme amount of talent and we're just trying to take the guesswork out for him."

This week in Charlotte, Ernst also has childhood friend Aaron Terry back on the bag - the same caddie he had when he tasted his maiden PGA Tour victory last year.

After rebuilding his game and with an old team reunited, it is no surprised that Ernst is feeling some semblance of confidence as he prepares to defend his title.

"I beat Rory (McIlroy), Lee Westwood, Phil (Mickelson), all these guys out there," Ernst said.

"That kind of gives me hope. That's why I come out every day and give it all I've got. Pretty soon I'll be back there again.

"For me to be here in 20, 30 years, I had to change some things. There have been plenty of people who say, 'Oh, you didn't play well the last year.'

"Good thing I'm only 23 and I have, like 30 of them left."

For LaBelle, Ernst's driving is his strength, but the American has also been working on his short game, even though he still ranks No. 200 in strokes gained-putting.

"He doesn't have any technical issues with his putter, he's cleaned those up," LaBelle added.

"He had some setup issues, but now he's pretty clean."

Ernst will tee off alongside K.J. Choi and Retief Goosen at 1:35pm local time on Thursday as he bids to defend his title.