Ernst wins Drive On Championship for 3rd LPGA Tour title

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Austin Ernst tees off on nine during the third round of the LPGA golf tournament in Ocala, Fla., Saturday March 6, 2021. (Alan Youngblood/Ocala Star-Banner via AP)

OCALA, Fla. (AP) — Austin Ernst won the Drive On Championship on Sunday for her third LPGA Tour title, pulling away to beat fellow former NCAA champion Jennifer Kupcho by five strokes at Golden Ocala.

Tied for the lead with Kupcho after each of the first two rounds and a stroke ahead entering the day, Ernst closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the wire-to-wire victory at 15-under 273.

“I think it’s just really cool to be in the heat of it all week and to be able to perform the way I did,” Ernst said. “To hit the shots I hit, and to shoot the scores I shot, I think it’s just kind of testament to me, that I can do this week in and week out and just if I have a little belief myself kind of what I can do.”

Kupcho, coming off a closing eagle Saturday, had a double bogey and three bogeys in a 74.

Following sisters Jessica and Nelly Korda in the first two events of the year, Ernst gave the United States three straight victories to open a season for the first time since 2007.

“I think the difference this week even just the last week was I just fully committed to believing in what I do and that it’s good enough,” said Ernst, who missed the cut last week in the Gainbridge LPGA with rounds of 75 and 72.

“I think this week proved that it’s more than good enough. It was fun to walk up and know that I was going to win. I haven’t had that yet, so that was fun.”

The 29-year-old former LSU star from South Carolina, showing her school spirit Sunday with a purple shirt, also won the 2014 Portland Classic and the 2020 NW Arkansas Championship. She won the NCAA title in 2011.

With brother Drew — a former player at Coastal Carolina — working as her caddie, Ernst birdied Nos. 4-7 to get to 17 under, but dropped back with bogeys on Nos. 12 and 13.

“Walked to 14 and Drew just told me, `Hey, you’re playing great. Just keep doing what you want to do and let’s just make a few birdies coming in,'” Ernst said. “Didn’t make any birdies, but played well coming in, and that made it easy.”

Kupcho birdied 10 and 12 to pull within three strokes of Ernst, then bogeyed 14, made the double bogey on the par-3 15th and bogeyed 17. She played most of the back nine in the opening round Thursday with a migraine that blurred her vision.

“I set myself up after 12 to be able to make a little bit of a move,” Kupcho said.” I just missed a pretty easy up-and-down, honestly, on 13, and obviously missed the putt on 14. … But I didn’t really think it was over until I hit the tee shot on 15. Everyone hits bad shots. It’s just unfortunate that’s when mine came for the week.”

Winless on the tour, the former 23-year-old former Wake Forest star from Colorado won the NCAA title in 2018 and the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019.

“Just work on getting stronger and continuing to focus on my game,” Kupcho said. “Pretty much the same thing I did over the offseason. I think it will be nice to have a little bit of a break for sure for a couple days.”

Jenny Coleman made it a 1-2-3 U.S. finish, closing with a 71 to get to 8 under.

“It helps boost my confidence and know I have the game to be out here and I deserve to be out here,” the 28-year-old former Colorado player said.

In Gee Chun of South Korea was fourth at 7 under after a 69. Switzerland’s Albane Valenzuela was another stroke back after a 73.

Nelly Korda, tied with Ernst and Kupcho for the first-round lead, had weekend rounds of 76 and 75 to tie for 28th at even par. Jessica Korda shot a 71 to tie for eighth at 4 under.

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