For five rounds, Chris Riley successfully navigated the grinding road that is the PGA Tour’s qualifying school.
And even though the sixth round was fraught with unexpected detours, the former UNLV standout survived to finish 19th and earn his playing card for the Tour’s 2010 season.
"I was gagging pretty good," Riley said with a laugh last week.
He entered the final round in fourth place after shooting under par five straight days, but he put up six bogeys during his closing 76 on Dec. 7 at Bear Lakes Country Club in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"I had my whole game set up, and I played a great first five rounds. But then I started thinking about it too much," Riley said. "It shouldn’t have been that close.
"But it’s 108 holes, and it’s such a grind."
A grind that Riley handled with aplomb through five rounds, which gave him the necessary wiggle room in case round six proved tougher — which it did. He threw down a 7-under 65 in the second round and a 4-under 68 in the fifth round, to go along with a trio of 71s, to reach 14-under 346 heading into the final day.
"I was really playing well enough to win the whole thing, but my mind got in the way," Riley joked from his San Diego home. "It was crazy."
But he’ll take crazy, as his 2010 playing privileges are secure, something only the top 25 finishers can say, out of a Q-School field of 152. He finished at 10-under 422, tied with four others for 19th.
"If you took a poll of all (152) guys, they wouldn’t care how they scored, as long as they get their card," Riley said. "I was totally happy. Any time you get the opportunity to play on the PGA Tour and play against the best, that’s a good thing. I wasn’t over the moon (after the final round), but I was pretty happy."
The Q-School effort capped a pretty solid second half of 2010 for Riley. He made the cut in 14 of his final 15 tournaments, dating to his tie for 23rd at the Byron Nelson Championship in May.
Riley posted four straight top-20 finishes from mid-July to mid-August, starting with a tie for seventh at the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. He finished the year with a solid $630,417 in earnings, putting him 129th on the money list, just outside the top 125 necessary to avoid Q-School.
"I had a pretty decent year actually, but I just didn’t finish off tournaments well — a shot here or there. I feel like I played better than my results showed," he said. "So I’m really looking forward to next year."
Riley, now 36, said the experience that comes with age has been key to meeting the demands of the PGA Tour.
"I’m not 25 or 30 anymore, but the experience helps a lot. I’ve really learned a lot," he said. "This is gonna be my 12th year out there full time. I’ve seen and done it all, and I’ve still got a lot to improve on. But it’s been a great ride so far."
Riley said he’s gotten better at balancing the extreme travel demands of his job with his role as a husband and father of two girls. The kids are now 5 and 3, which he said has made it a little easier to hit the road for tournaments.
"I’m OK with leaving now for a week," he said. "My wife has been a huge help. She’s really good with the girls, and she drives me to keep going. She’s like, ‘Yeah, go play another week.’ She wants me to get the most out of it."
His kids are old enough to understand that golf is Riley’s job, and he said they also travel as a family half the time. But the other half of the season is still difficult at times.
"My wife and my kids, they’re the most important to me," he said. "To be quite honest, the Tour is such a grind. To use the cliché, it’s the hardest way to make an easy living.
"Another airplane, another empty hotel room. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have some tough years where I really didn’t feel like doing it. But it’s almost a 180-degree turn for me now — I’m feeling good and ready to do some good things."
Like winning. Riley won a Nationwide event in 2007, but his only PGA Tour victory came in the 2002 Reno-Tahoe Open.
"It seems like two lifetimes ago," Riley said. "I’d love to win a tournament. I definitely want to get back in position again and really play solid golf, like I know I can.
"I feel like I’ve got one of the best short games out there. I just need to work on my ball-striking. There’s no doubt I feel like I can win. I’m excited about the new year."