SAN DIEGO – “On a whim,” Chris Riley successfully took on the challenge of a Monday qualifier to get into last week’s Farmers Insurance Open.
As for the decision to have left the competitive world of the PGA Tour in the first place? Well, that surely wasn’t “on a whim.” Closer to the truth to say that Riley had a long, slow departure, because he seemed to take a few steps toward the exit each and every season. His desire to leave was born out of his dislike of the travel, yes, but also for the keen sense he had that he wasn’t on a level playing field.
Riley knew he had to be on his game at all times, just to make cuts, while mega-talents such as his friend Tiger Woods and fellow San Diegan Phil Mickelson could have bad tournaments and still contend and maybe even win. In his best years on the PGA Tour, from his rookie year of 1999 to 2004, Riley was a marvel for doing so much with seemingly one hand tied behind his back. His average finish in the driving-distance category was 136th; for greens in regulation, it was 150th.
Talk about starting from a disadvantage.
Yet in those six years he piled up the bulk of his prize money, which remains a tidy and impressive sum: $11,510,983. As he teed it up at the Farmers against contemporaries such as Woods and Mickelson and a new generation of stars such as Jordan Spieth and Ryo Ishikawa, Riley sat 119th on the career money list.
To get there, he had to chip in a lot, at least when he wasn’t rolling in long putts or wedging it close to set up a tap-in. Simply put, Riley was there when the power game took over, and a bad one-two punch was in place: He didn’t have the power, nor the passion.
“You have to have the mindset,” said Riley, now 40 and content to be at home with daughters Taylor, 9, and Rose, 7, and his wife, the former Michelle Louviere, a onetime LSU golfer who briefly played the LPGA tour. “I don’t have the mindset to play at this level anymore. It’s so hard.”
It would be misleading to say that Riley walked away from the glitz and glamour of the PGA Tour world and millions and millions of dollars. Although he had four straight years in which he earned between $1.2 million and $2.1 million, from 2005 to ’09 he made an average of $437,303, spending some of his time on the Nationwide Tour.
Riley had one more big splash, in 2010, when he earned $1,001,582, but he lost his card after diving to $397,204 in ’11.
So we’re not exactly talking a leave-at-the-top-of-your-game situation here.
Those who know him will tell you that he had lost his focus several years before – for all the right reasons, of course. Married in 2002, Chris and Michelle soon had children and he realized that he wanted to be home. “I don’t know how they do it,” he said, referring to the players who travel 25-30 weeks a year and must give up plenty of family time. “My choice is to be a softball coach for my kids.”
Good for Riley, only it is wrong to assume, then, that players who remain on Tour are doing so at the expense of their families. A great many players have discovered the balance that Riley never could. Then again, many of these players are groomed for today’s power game, unlike Riley.
Even by 2006, less than two years removed from his Ryder Cup berth, Riley wondered whether it was worth the effort to remain on Tour, because there was so little room for error. “I was getting everything out of my game,” he said in Chris Lewis’ book, “The Scorecard Always Lies: A Year Behind The Scenes on the PGA Tour.” “I was chipping in from everywhere. I didn’t miss any of these putts.”
Riley isn’t so much memorable for his one PGA Tour win (the 2002 Reno-Tahoe Open) but for sitting out a session at the 2004 Ryder Cup. He had paired with Stewart Cink for a halve in Friday’s four-balls, the only match that the Euros didn’t win in that first session. Down by a 6 1/2 – 1 1/2 score after the first day, the Americans needed a lift, and Riley seemed to provide it. He teamed with Woods for a four-ball win Saturday morning over Darren Clarke and Ian Poulter.
What happened from there will forever be debated. Whether captain Hal Sutton on his own decided Riley wasn’t the right fit for afternoon foursomes, or whether Sutton took the advice of others and kept him out of the lineup, the fact is, Riley did not play in the afternoon. “I’m pretty emotionally drained,” Riley told the media later that day, and unfortunately, his words were great fodder for reporters who had a field day in the aftermath of the Americans’ humiliating loss.
In Lewis’ book, Riley said that the Ryder Cup “was the best time of my life . . . and it might have been my downfall.”
His earnings fell from nearly $1.3 million in 2004 to $268,735 the next year, and Riley was filled with self-doubt. Although he did some stints on the Nationwide Tour to stay competitive and try to regain full status on the PGA Tour, Riley never denied that he couldn’t find the desire to hit balls for hours and hours.
As he stood collecting some good cheer after opening with a 74 in the first round of the Farmers, Riley smiled. “A 2-over 74 on the South (Course at Torrey Pines)? That’s good – for me,” he said with a straight face, knowing that it wasn’t so good in the true sense of the competitive picture. Riley signed for 71 the next day, missed the cut by one, and is comfortable enough in his own skin to deflect suggestions that he’s still got the game to compete.
He shook his head.
“When I hit it short and crooked, I’m pretty much playing for bogey,” he said. “I do have a little talent. But Bubba (Watson) and them? They have sick talent.”
Giving himself credit for having saved enough money (“I don’t know how you make a certain amount of money and go broke; some guys do.”), Riley sells himself short when he explains why he hasn’t done much beyond coaching his girls’ softball teams (“I can’t go out and get a job, unless it’s in the golf business; all I’ve done is golf.”)
He certainly got a lot out of his game. Seems that he still is, too, even in retirement.