U.S. Women's Open (copy)

Austin Ernst of Seneca blasts out of a bunker Monday during a practice round for the U.S. Women's Open at the Country Club of Charleston. Brad Nettles/Staff

Austin Ernst doesn't have a lot of experience at the Country Club of Charleston, site of this week's U.S. Women's Open Golf Championship. But she has won a golf tournament in the Charleston area on a Seth Raynor-designed golf course.

In 2011, Ernst led Louisiana State to the team title and was the individual medalist at the College of Charleston's Cougar Classic at Yeamans Hall Club in Hanahan. The Country Club of Charleston and Yeamans Hall are both Raynor designs and both opened in 1925.

Ernst's victory in the Cougar Classic was part of an outstanding sophomore season that culminated with her winning the NCAA Division I individual championship. Ernst went to LPGA qualifying school and earned her playing privileges and hasn't looked back. Since turning pro, Ernst has won almost $3 million.

Her goal this week is to be in the hunt and have a chance on Sunday. Ernst said her game is improving and she's battled back from a case of mononucleosis that sidelined her late in 2018.

"I finished second at The Evian Championship (in France) and a week later found out I had mono," Ernst said. "I couldn't go to Asia to play. That was the end of September and pretty much for the next two months, if I did anything for more than an hour and a half, I felt like I needed to go back to sleep."

Austin Ernst US Womens Golf Tues.jpg (copy)

Austin Ernst of Seneca takes a break during Tuesday's practice round for the U.S. Women's Open at the Country Club of Charleston. She has played in five Women's Opens with her best finish being a tie for 41st in 2018. Wade Spees/Staff 

Until a practice round six weeks ago, Ernst's experience at the Country Club of Charleston was limited to one round of golf while she was still in high school. She likes what she sees this week.

"The course has gotten a little firmer since (the practice round). It's in great shape. It's definitely a second-shot golf course. You need to drive it well, but it's not overly narrow. If you hit a lot of greens, you get a lot of birdie looks. If you miss greens, you can get in some tricky spots.

Women's Open winner will receive record $1 million at Country Club of Charleston

"The wind here will be the deciding factor as to how low the scores will be. It's such a good, old-style course. This one has such a good mix of holes. The signature hole would be the (172-yard, par-3) 11th. We don't see anything like that. But I don't mind it. You just have to step up and hit a golf shot."

Ernst, whose father Mark is the director of golf and general manager at Cross Creek Plantation in Seneca and also her swing coach, said she she will have a crowd of supporters cheering her on this week. Among them will be her immediate family, one set of grandparents, two sets of aunts and uncles, and many friends offering encouragement from outside the ropes.

"I'm excited to have them here," she said. "Hopefully we can get a few more South Carolina people out there. I like playing in front of crowds. The bigger the better."

Ernst grew up in Seneca, a small town in Upstate South Carolina (pop. 8,340) located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

She said the LPGA lifestyle suits her well, and she appreciates the experiences her travels have afforded.

At US Women's Open, the heat is on (and so is the drought)

"I'm young. How many people from Seneca have been to the Great Wall of China?" said Ernst, 27. "I've gotten to see a lot of places that a lot of people in the world don't get to see. That's been fun, and I get to do what I love."

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