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Austin Ernst breaks through with Portland Classic playoff victory

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF DAVID BLAIR - Austin Ernst ackowledges the crowd after winning the LPGA Portland Classic in a playoff with I.K. Kim at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.Austin Ernst had a reason before Sunday to consider Columbia Edgewater Country Club one of her favorite golf courses.

Now she has a reason to consider it her No. 1 spot on the LPGA Tour.

"I love this place," Ernst said after winning the Portland Classic with a par on the first hole of a playoff against I.K. Kim.

Ernst, 22, bounced back from closing bogeys in regulation.

A two-putt playoff par on the par-4 18th was enough to beat Kim, who missed a 7-foot par attempt that would have kept her alive.

Ernst, the 2011 NCAA champion from LSU, had shot 62 at Columbia Edgewater in last year's third round.

Her 67 on Sunday meant even more, though, and it helped her capture her first LPGA title, in her 42nd career start.

Her best previous finish was a tie for sixth in last year's Manulife Financial LPGA Classic, and she had only one other previous top-10 showing.

"I'm very confident when I step onto this golf course," she said. "I love it."

She was also confident about her chances Sunday, after three 69s put her two shots out of the 54-hole lead.

"I knew I didn't have to do anything special, if I just kept playing the way I had been," she said. "I was trying to get to 18-under (in the final round), just trying to make birdies."

Ernst became the American winner at Portland since Cristie Kerr in 2008.

Kim, 26, of South Korea, was looking for her fourth LPGA win, and she led after the first and second rounds.

She forced a playoff with a nail-biting chip to 3 feet on the 72nd hole that gave her a 68 and put her at 14-under-par 274 with Ernst.

The playoff format called for the golfers to play the par-4 18th as many times as necessary.

After both drove well, Kim sent her 6-iron approach slightly to the right, just missing the green. Ernst found the putting surface from 148 yards, leaving herself a 35-footer.

Kim chipped to within 7 feet, and Ernst then flirted with the cup before tapping in for par.

"It looked really good for a long time, then it just tailed to the left," Ernst said of the first putt, which stopped 18 inches past the hole.

Kim's subsequent par try was to the left all the way, and the miss gave Ernst the $195,000 first prize.

"Unbelievable. I'm just so happy," said Ernst, a 5-5 native of Greenville, S.C.

Coming into this week, Ernst ranked 69th on the 2014 LPGA money list with $104,658; Kim was 77th with $98,702.

South Koreans Chellia Choi and So Yeon Ryu tied for third at 276. Choi fired a 68 on Sunday; Ryu double-bogeyed the 18th, finding the water out of the fairway bunker, to miss the playoffs by two shots as well. Ryu had to settle for a closing 70.

The third-round co-leaders — Suzanne Pettersen of Norway, Carlota Ciganda of Spain and Mi Jung Hur of South Korea — both failed to contend down the stretch.

Pettersen's faulty putter did her in early. She sagged to a 74 and tied for 16th at 9-under, five out of the playoff.

Ciganda also shot 74 and joined Pettersen and Tiffany Joh at 9-under.

Hur was in the hunt at 13-under through 15, but she bogeyed the next three holes and wound up in a tie for ninth after her fourth-round 73 for a 10-under 278.

Ernst got into the lead quickly Sunday afternoon, thanks to a 5-under 31 on the front nine that included a 54-degree wedge bump-and-run chip-in for eagle on the par-5 5th.

At 4:30 p.m., Ernst rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 14 to move to 16-under, two in front of her closest pursuer. The tournament was hers to lose — and she did open the door.

Ernst drove left on the par-4 17th and wound up making a 5-footer for her first bogey of the day.

"A good putt," she said.

On 18, her approach was to the right, just off the green, and her long putt wound up 10 feet short. She missed from there, falling to 14-under and into a tie with Kim and Ryu.

Ryu then hit her approach fat on No. 17, but made a 5-foot par save to remain in a tie for the lead.

Kim, playing the 18th at the time, drove into the fairway bunker on the right, and her second shot came out hot. It bounced off the grandstand behind the green, though, giving her a straightforward but not easy chip. She hit a beauty to within three feet and canned the putt to force a playoff with at least one player, Ernst.

Ryu then drove into the same bunker on No. 18 — and she caught some sand on the way out and pulled her second shot into the water, ruining her title hopes.

Ernst spoke to her father on the phone before the playoff, and he encouraged her to take a positive perspective regarding her bogeys on 17 and 18. If her two bogeys had come somewhere earlier in the round, Dad said, nobody would be thinking twice about them. She had played solidly, he told her.

With that, "I didn't get too down," she said of her minutes of preparation for the playoffs. She calmly hit some drives and 7-irons, the clubs she figured she would use — and did — in the playoff on No. 18. And she rolled some practice pulls, which gave her a touch for the speed, something that also came in handy.

NOTES: Beaverton High's Gigi Stoll, who qualified for the tournament as an amateur, tied for 52nd, shooting 71-74-71-71—287 (1-under) in her first LPGA four-rounder. … The $1.3 million tourney drew only 3 of the top 10 players on the season money list, with nine of the top 20 in the field. … Ernst, for now, is an addition to the list of relatively nondescript Portland champions: Mika Miyazato, Hur, Soo-Yun Kang, Mi Hyun Kim, Danielle Ammaccapane, Christa Johnson, Alison Nicholas, Missie McGeorge, Donna Andrews and Michelle Estill. … The tournament, which began in 1972, has had its share of big-name winners, too, although only a handful have broken through more than once (not counting six years of team competition at Portland): Nancy Lopez (three firsts) and Pettersen, Annika Sorenstam, JoAnne Carner and Kathy Whitworth (two titles each).