PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Davis Riley and his mom, Kim, are very close.
Beginning with Davis’ junior golf days, Kim has been a constant presence at Davis’ tournaments. She was there both times Davis fell in the final of the U.S. Junior Amateur. She was there when Davis played his first event for the University of Alabama. She’s always been there, to celebrate with her son when he won and to give him a shoulder to cry on when things didn’t go as well.
“She’s my No. 1 fan,” Riley said.
So when Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer in March, her only son was devastated. Kim, the mom who almost never missed a tournament, suddenly couldn’t travel to events.
“It hurt him,” said David Riley, Davis’ dad. “It took him some time to get over it.”
Davis won once and didn’t finish worse than T-7 in his first five starts last season as a junior. But in his first event since Kim’s diagnosis, he tied for 38th at Southern Highlands.
“I didn’t want my health or anything that was going on with me to affect how he played or what was weighing on his mind,” Kim said.
But Davis couldn’t help but think about his mom. There were many tough nights trying to fall asleep, and many times where practicing was the last thing he wanted to do. He had just two more top-10s that spring.
“I was worried,” Davis said. “Definitely not using it is as a crutch for my golf obviously, but, yeah, was definitely worrisome in the back of my mind because they were trying to keep it on the low a little bit and not try to worry me, let me focus on my golf.”
Kim had a mastectomy in May – but didn’t have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation – and has since been given a positive prognosis. She wasn’t able to travel to Stillwater, Okla., to watch Davis help the Crimson Tide to the NCAA final at Kartsen Creek. But she did make the trip to the Western Amateur last month. Davis finished runner-up, losing to Cole Hammer in the final.
And she’s here this week at iconic Pebble Beach Golf Links, where Davis punched his ticket to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur with a thrilling 21-hole victory of Mason Overstreet on Thursday.
“Maybe she’s my good luck charm, too,” Riley said. “I play pretty well with her around.”
Riley cruised in his Round-of-32 match Thursday morning, dispatching the top seed Daniel Hillier, 5 and 4. His next match, though, was much more nerve-racking.
The 21-year-old from Hattiesburg, Miss., never led in his match until he stuck a birdie to tap-in range at the par-4 third, the 21st hole. But he also never trailed by more than 1 down.
Overstreet showcased an elite bunker game, one that Riley called easily the best in amateur golf. He got up and down on three straight holes from No. 17 on, and then at the par-4 second, the second playoff hole, gave himself a chance to win by hitting the green from the deep bunker that bisects the fairway.
Riley still can’t believe what happened on that second extra hole. With Overstreet likely making bogey at best, all Riley had to do was hit his second shot from the left rough somewhere around the green. Instead, he caught a flier with a 7-iron from 202 yards out. His ball hit pin high, and then took a hard bounce over the back of the green and into some tall grass.
“I didn’t even know if I could get the ball out, honestly,” Riley said.
He took a big cut and his ball flew over the green and into the front-left bunker. After hitting his fourth to about 12 feet and missing his bogey putt, Riley figured he’d be going home. Overstreet had lagged his par putt to 3 feet and stared down what seemed like a for-sure make.
Only he missed, his ball barely catching the right edge. Both players, shocked, were heading to the next hole, which Riley, of course, would win with birdie.
“To halve the hole, that’s ridiculous,” said Riley’s caddie, local Dan Merson. “It’s one of the best matches that I’ve ever been a part of or seen. Period.”
Riley is built for match play. He has the ability to stay calm in the most trying of circumstances on the golf course. He was 4 down to Hammer at the Western, and battled back to get the match to all square entering the final hole.
He just hasn’t quite been able to finish off the job. Twice a runner-up at the U.S. Junior. Runner-up as a team at the NCAA Championship. Before this year, he hadn’t made it to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur in two previous attempts, which explains why he was surprised when told his quarterfinal match against Devon Bling would be his only match on Friday, unlike the U.S. Junior, which features a two-round Friday.
But things seem different this time around. Riley is stronger now. The match-play experiences have toughened him, and Kim’s battle with cancer has given him more perspective.
Kim has always admired her son’s ability to shake off adversity.
“What I’m most proud about Davis is he just moves on,” Kim said. “He knows it’s just golf, and somebody’s got to win the match and somebody’s got to lose it.”
No matter what else happens this week at Pebble Beach, the Rileys have all won. When Davis walked off the third green late Thursday afternoon, his family wasn’t there to greet him with hugs, including his maternal grandmother, who hadn’t seen a tournament since Davis’ junior days.
The biggest hug of them all, though, was saved for mom.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Kim said. “It’s been a magical week. I just have to keep reminding myself to take a deep breath, enjoy the scenery, and know that we’re just all lucky to be here.”