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.
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TIGER WOODS’ SLOW STARTS OF RECENT YEARS: There are dozens of way to slice, dice and shake up Tiger Woods data, but here’s one though that shows he’s different than in years past: count just his first four tournaments of a calendar year.
Where he used to break from the gates with authority, the torrid starts have evaporated as he has gotten older.
Again, just measuring his first four tournaments of the season – PGA Tour, European Tour, Asian Tour, doesn’t matter – from 1997 to 2009 he was uncanny early. In this 13-year stretch, once he won the first four out of the blocks (2008), once he won three of four (2003), and three times he won twice (2006, 2000, 1997). The first four tournaments of the year times 13 seasons is 52 tournaments, and Woods won 19 of them for a winning percentage of .365.
But since turning 35, his first four starts of 2011, ’12, and ’13 have been lackluster. One win in 12 starts, that being last year’s Farmers Insurance Open. If you factor in this year’s Farmers, that’s 1-for-13, or a clip of .077.
Now as he demonstrated last year when he won his fifth, sixth and eighth starts of the season, the man still has a serious strut when everything is clicking, but these numbers offer fodder for a reasonable theory. That is, Woods, 38, isn’t as sharp at the beginning of a season. Because of his age, injury history and custodial duties as a divorced father, there’s no way he can practice and prepare himself like he used to, when he was in his 20s or early 30s.
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PHIL MICKELSON BIG ON CHARGERS: There are many sides to Phil Mickelson – master golfer, involved businessman, devoted family man, charitable mover – but he took time out before the start of the Farmers Insurance Open to wave the flag for his hometown sports passion.
Bottom line: Lefty was more or less telling the rest of the NFL to watch out for the San Diego Chargers in 2014.
Sure, the Chargers were ousted by the Broncos. Mickelson needn’t be reminded. He was in attendance in Denver before going to Abu Dhabi. “It was crushing,” he conceded.
Ah, but the glass is permanently half-full in his world, so he brushes aside the 9-7 record, the finish behind the Broncos and the Chiefs, and the failure to beat Denver in the postseason.
“It was the greatest year for the Chargers,” gushed Mickelson. “We had a new coach (Mike McCoy), we have great key players, we have a great direction, we got better every week, and we only lost one game by more than a single score. I’m excited about the Chargers next year.”
Now, before you think he’s just a hometown guy, here’s a reminder that back before the 2000 NFL season began, Lefty let it be known that Baltimore needed to be watched. Sure enough, the Ravens pounded the Giants months later in the Super Bowl.
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PACKED PHOENIX OPEN FIELD: As if it weren’t confusing enough, what with 10 players having at least a share of the lead during the final round of the Farmers Insurance Open, the traffic jam for those who finished top 10 was quite a jumbled post-tournament storyline, too.
It’s been part of the PGA Tour landscape for years that those who finish top 10 earn spots, if they’re not already qualified, into the following week’s tournament (excluding majors, WGCs and invitationals). But quite often we’re talking one or two names, not the seven who worked their way into the top 10 at the Farmers.
Two of those seven – Will MacKenzie and Seung-Yul Noh – did not commit to the Waste Management Phoenix Open, so they weren’t factored into the overflow. But the other five – Ryo Ishikawa, Justin Thomas, Trevor Immelman, Russell Knox and Brad Fritsch – committed, only to get the bad news that their top 10 at Torrey Pines wouldn’t get them into the party at TPC Scottsdale.
The problem is the WMPO’s popularity and the long list of fully-exempt players, medical exemptions and career-money guys who sit at the front of the line. They trump the players from the Web.com Tour Final list, as well as the previous week’s top 10s.
As of early Tuesday, Michael Putnam – leading money-winner on the Web.com Tour last year – was first alternate, with Ishikawa second and Thomas third. Putnam got into the field Tuesday afternoon, though, after Tim Herron withdrew.
If the top 10 from San Diego doesn’t get you into the WMPO field, it could be used to get into next week’s AT&T Pebble Beach gathering, but that benefits only Thomas; the other names already are entered into that pro-am.
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FIRST TOP 10: Speaking of Thomas, the one-time University of Alabama standout, he clearly was thrilled with the way the Farmers unfolded. The share of 10th was his best finish in eight PGA Tour tournaments.
“I didn’t know I was even in this until Monday (when he got official word that he was a sponsor exemption), and for the first three days I hit it extremely poor,” he said. “But I’m proud of the way I hung in there on what was one of the best set-ups I’ve ever played.”
Thomas, 20, will have a chance to play the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but the following week he’ll head to Colombia to begin his focus on the Web.com Tour schedule.
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COLD DAY IN OHIO: When you’re raised in Australia, cold weather is a foreign concept, only relevant when it dips below 60. So you can imagine that Jason Day is like a fish out of water living in Ohio, especially in this year of the “polar vortex.”
“Jason doesn’t really like the cold very much,” said his wife, Ellie.
To solve the challenge of how to stay golf-sharp while temperatures plunged, Day decided on a good stretch of practice in Palm Springs, Calif., in preparation for his season-opener at the Farmers Insurance Open. But the other side to Jason and Ellie is this: They prefer their motor home over airplanes and hotels, whenever possible.
They have a driver to handle the duties behind the wheel, and he drove the motor home out to Palm Springs, where Day practiced a lot with Nick Watney. The motor home was with them in San Diego, then they were headed back to Palm Springs so that he could have another week of practice before teeing it up in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
Day said he still was undecided about the Feb. 13-16 Northern Trust Open at Riviera, but he was on board for the following week’s Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.
All of which is one way to beat the dreaded polar vortex.
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ON THE MOVE: Scott Stallings is another player who learned last year that it’s not easy trying to stay golf-sharp while camped out where winter can take a bite out of you.
A diehard Tennessean, Stallings froze there in the 2012-13 winter, so he decided that Scottsdale, Ariz., would be his home base for winters for now. Smart man. He also has explored a membership at Whisper Rock, arguably the best golf club in the planet, and he already has giving credit to his winter in Scottsdale for his victory at the Farmers Insurance Open.
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START YOUR ENGINES: As parting shots go, Stallings had a beauty late Sunday afternoon. After wrapping up his post-tournament media session, Stallings went through the ritual of signing flags for tournament officials. When a member of the grounds crew introduced himself and congratulated Stallings, the winner signed a flag for him but couldn’t resist.
He told the gentleman, adding a big laugh, “You guys are going to need to put new mower blades on.”
Yes, the high, thick rough was the story of the week.
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HE WANTS TO PLAY: Asked why he had played the Humana Challenge for the first time since 2011, his rookie season, Keegan Bradley was honest. “I didn’t want my first tournament of the new year to be here.”
Bradley was referring to the Farmers, and it was a nod of respect to the South Course at Torrey Pines, which had a U.S. Open feel to it. Now after having seen Tiger Woods try to knock the rust off in miserable fashion, one could appreciate Bradley’s thinking. He got into a little bit of rhythm in the desert and finished T-18 at the Humana and carried some of that into Torrey Pines, where Bradley finished T-16.
But the bigger picture is this: Whereas a guy like Adam Scott will make the Masters his fifth PGA Tour stop of the year, Bradley thinks he has to be in competition. “I just couldn’t take that much time off,” he said. “If I did take time off, guess what? I’d be be playing golf.”
In 2012, the first year he was eligible, Bradley made the Masters his 10th tournament. It was his 11th tournament in 2013, and it figures to be his 10th in the calendar year of 2014.
“I just cannot see myself taking time off in big chunks,” Bradley said.
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QUALIFIED SUCCESS: Chris Smith’s battle to return to the PGA Tour continues to travel along the toughest route: Monday qualifiers. But a round of applause for the former PGA Tour winner, because he made it through for a second straight week and the third time this wraparound season.
Amateur Ki Taek Lee shot 65 for medalist honors at McCormick Ranch GC and earn a spot into the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Smith, Danny Lee, and Kevin Kim tied for second at 66, but because only three spots are available in this Monday qualifier, a playoff was necessary. Kim was ousted when he made bogey.
Smith, 44, advanced, one week after having done so at the Farmers Insurance Open. He also qualified for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October.
But as much as he takes pride in having navigated these challenges, Smith is focused on the next step, which is to make a cut and get into the mix.