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Something to smile about in Ernst

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF DAVID BLAIR - Fellow LPGA Tour players douse Portland Classic winner Austin Ernst with water moments after her winning par on the 18th hole - the first hole of a playoff - Sunday at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.I walked the final nine holes with Austin Ernst's twosome Sunday at Columbia Edgewater Country Club.

Through she was front-running the $1.3 million LPGA Portland Classic, she showed almost no emotion. Never cracked a smile. Neither did her caddy, whom I learned later is her brother, Drew.

In the end, though, after I.K. Kim missed a par putt on the first playoff hole to give Ernst her first LPGA Tour title, there was a big grin and a leap into the arms of Drew.

There were laughs when, seconds later, fellow LPGA members doused her in celebration, a tradition on tour.

"I got to do it to Lexi (Thompson) at Kraft this year," said Ernst, 22, in her second year on tour. "It's nice being on the receiving end."

And later, as she met with media, Ernst teared up at the mention of her brother.

"It's special, sharing this with a sibling and with family," the 2011 NCAA champion from Louisiana State told me.

Drew Ernst, 25, is a former Coastal Carolina player who has carried his sister's clubs for more than a year. Austin got emotional talking about it afterward.

"I love having Drew on the bag," she said. "We get along really well. Drew's really proud that he was here with me."

Back home in Seneca, S.C., was their father Mark, Austin's coach and a teaching pro.

Austin got on the phone with her dad after she finished her round as she waited for the playoff to begin.

"He said to just keep on doing what I'd been doing," she said. "He said, 'You've played a really good round of golf today. No matter what happens, you should be proud.' "

For 14 holes, Ernst -- who entered Sunday two shots off the lead -- was as good as it gets in women's golf. She eagled the par-five fifth hole and finished the front side in 5-under 31. After 14 holes, she was 7-under for the day and 16 under for the tournament, and the first prize was hers to lose.

Ernst almost did. She bogeyed No. 17 -- had to make a six-foot putt to do that -- and then bogeyed No. 18 to come back to Kim.

But Ernst kept her composure.

"I didn't get too down, even though I bogeyed the last two," Ernst said. "I made a really good putt at 17. Those are probably two of the hardest holes in the course.

"Coming down the stretch, I was very proud of how I handled everything."

Kim, meanwhile, got a little flustered playing the 18th hole for the second time on Sunday.

"I've played a lot of playoffs, but I haven't won one yet," said the South Korean who now makes her home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "It was in the back of my mind."

Ernst took home $195,000, which nearly equals her career earnings in two years on the tour. She finished 72nd on the money list with $142,002 in earnings as a rookie in 2013 and entered the week ranked 69th this year with $104,658.

"It feels great," Ernst said. "It's nice to see all that hard work pay off. I knew I was close. I know I'm a lot better than I was last year."

But Ernst hadn't finished in the top 15 of a tournament this year. She entered Sunday in contention but in a horse race, as 26 players started within five strokes of the lead.

"But I knew that I didn't have to do anything special, if I just kept playing like I've been playing this week," she said.

And she has a little history with Columbia Edgewater. In last year's Safeway Classic, Ernst was the last player to make the cut and played her third round by herself. All she did was shoot a personal-record 62 -- one shot off the course record -- as she zipped around the course in two hours and 25 minutes.

"I'm very confident when I step onto this golf course," said the woman with the tannest legs this side of Natalie Gulbis on the LPGA circuit. "I love it. I don't know what it is that fits my eye, but I really enjoy playing it."

Ernst had prepped for the final round by watching on TV Saturday night as her beloved LSU Tigers rallied from a 17-7 halftime deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24 at Houston's NRG Stadium.

"I follow them pretty close," she said. "I was very happy we pulled it out in the end. I wasn't too thrilled early in the game, but it was a very good second half."

Ernst did it another way Sunday, mounting a nice lead, watching it fritter away, then coming through in the clutch.

That was something to smile about.

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