Back in 2004, everything was coming together for Chris Riley, in all facets of his life.
His golf game was in the best shape it had ever been in. He had a second-place finish among his three top-10 efforts, and he earned nearly $1.3 million that season.
Riley also landed on the United States Ryder Cup squad for the first time, and that turned out to be a memorable week, even though the Americans came up short to the European squad.
"That was kind of like me making the Super Bowl," said Riley, a 1996 University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduate. "That was like the pinnacle of golf for me. And the same week, my wife and I had our first child."
That indeed made it a dynamic week. But it also introduced a challenge that Riley hadn’t faced up to that point: balancing golf with family, and it’s been a difficult road since then trying to strike that balance.
"I’ve had a hard time juggling family and golf," said Riley, who now has two daughters, ages 4 and 2. "It hasn’t been injuries or anything with my game; it’s just the balancing act of family and being on the road. It’s been a big issue for me."
In 2005, he finished outside the top 125 on the PGA Tour’s money list, though he kept his playing status through a two-year exemption for making the Ryder Cup squad. He had no top-10 finishes for the first time in his seven-year career. In 2006, he had just one top-10 effort in 27 starts and again finished outside the top 125, losing his exempt status.
He started coming back around in 2007, gaining entry into 17 PGA Tour events despite his nonexempt status and recording five top-25 finishes, though he still fell short of regaining full-time PGA Tour privileges. He also notched a win that season in one of the four Nationwide Tour events he played.
He competed in 17 more PGA events last year and had six top-25 efforts, including a third-place finish at the Milwaukee stop, but he ended up 164th on the money list. That meant his only hope for earning back his PGA Tour card rested on the grind known as Qualifying School.
The final stage of Q-School is perhaps the most grueling test in golf. It’s a six-round event in December, and only the top 25 players plus ties earn PGA Tour playing privileges. Riley made the short trek from his San Diego home — having recently moved after living in Las Vegas for several years following his time at UNLV — to La Quinta, Calif., to take on the Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West.
His worst day was his first day, when he shot 71. From there, he fired a pair of 67s, a pair of 69s and a 70 en route to a 19-under 413 total, which put him in an 11-way tie for 18th place — landing right on the cut line to regain his PGA Tour card.
"That was a big accomplishment, to get my card back," said Riley, who also survived Q-School in 1998. "It’s been getting harder and harder for me to grind it out. But at Q-School, I did a good job. That was the grind of all grinds, and it was pretty awesome to make it through."
That’s only the beginning, though. While he has his card, Riley still has to earn his way into some of this year’s bigger events by going through qualifiers. He came up short in qualifying for last weekend’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera in Los Angeles, and he missed the cut earlier this month in the Buick Invitational and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
"You’re excited to be back on tour, but you still have a lot of work to do," Riley said.
This week, the PGA Tour has two events going, with a World Golf Championship tournament for the top 64 players in the world, and a regular weekly event in Mexico. So Riley is guaranteed a spot in Cancun, and he’ll have the same opportunity in two weeks, playing in a Puerto Rico PGA Tour event while another WGC tournament is held concurrently in Florida.
It’s a mixed blessing, though, as the WGC events are worth much more money, as is the upcoming Honda Classic, set for March 5-8 in Florida. Riley would like a couple of strong finishes, if not a victory, to get back to elite status.
"I’ll get into the opposite events in Mexico and Puerto Rico, and hopefully I’ll get into the Honda, but I still need to play well," he said. "The opposite events are a good opportunity to win one, and then you can get back into the elite status. I look at it as a good opportunity to win a tournament."
He did just that in 2002, taking the Reno-Tahoe title opposite a WGC event. It’s been a long time since that lone PGA Tour victory, but Riley said he believes he’s still got winning golf inside him.
"I think I’ve got the game to win a golf tournament," he said. "If I put it together for four rounds, it’s possible to win, and that’s my goal this season — to win a tournament."
He’s certainly taken big strides toward balancing out his golf career and his role as a husband and father, with wife Michelle a key to his success. The two have been married since 2002, and Michelle — a former standout golfer at Louisiana State who spent some time on the LPGA Tour — can very much relate to the ups and downs Riley has had the past few years.
"Sometimes, I wish she didn’t know as much as she does," Riley joked. "But honestly, she knows what we go through (on the PGA Tour), and that’s a good thing."