Life of Riley takes on new meaning

The ball sat 99 feet from the hole, the conclusion of a 590-yard, par-5 monster that is the last stop on the 18-hole layout that is the Somerby Golf Club.

Chris Riley had gotten to the green in two, and while draining a lengthy eagle putt was unlikely, a birdie seemed to be within reach. Get down in two, and Riley had a chance to win for the first time since 2002 for his second tournament title.

In the past couple of years, Riley’s putting has been one of several problems that has plagued his once-steady game. It was one of the reasons he had lost his PGA Tour card and was spending this day just outside of Rochester, Minn., playing on the Nationwide Tour, the Triple-A level of pro golf. But Riley was confident as he stood over the long putt.

Riley had his grandmother’s 1969 Ping Anser putter in his hand. He had had success with Grandma’s flat stick years ago, and as he struggled to find an answer for his putting, he looked in his closet, saw the family heirloom and figured, “What the hell.”

“I hadn’t been putting very well, and I went to Ping and asked them if there was something different about the putter I had been using, and they said, ‘Yes,’ ” Riley recalled of his decision to switch. “I had done well with my grandmother’s putter in the past, so I put it in my bag, and I started making putts.”

He got down in two for birdie, finishing the round at 2 under par, forcing a playoff with Jamie Lovemark. He beat Lovemark on the second playoff hole to win the Rochester Area Charities Showdown at Somerby. The June 17 win, worth $90,000, was worth considerably more in the confidence department.

“It meant a lot because, let’s face it, I haven’t won too many tournaments,” said Riley, who turned pro in 1996. “It was exciting to play so well again.”

A four-time All-America at UNLV from 1993 to 1996, Riley was considered one of America’s brightest rising golfers. He was selected to play for the United States in the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in Bloomfield, Mich. But he stirred controversy when he said he was fatigued and told captain Hal Sutton he should substitute for him on the final day.

The Americans lost, and Riley became the target of criticism. He hasn’t been the same since. He also became a father as he and wife Michelle became the parents of a daughter, Taylor, two years ago, then welcomed a second daughter, Rose, last year.

Trying to juggle parental responsibilities and maintain the quality of his game against the world’s best took its toll. In September, as Riley was preparing to be inducted into the UNLV Athletic Hall of Fame while attempting to maintain his exempt status on the PGA Tour, he realized the game, which had come so easy for him growing up in San Diego, was a struggle.

He failed to keep his card and had to go to the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School.

After shooting an 83 the first day of the qualifying tournament and withdrawing, Riley had bottomed out.

“It was weird,” Riley said of his woes. “It had nothing to do with injuries or my swing. It was like there were two different forces pulling at me.

“Here I was, a father of two, dealing with everything that comes with raising a family while at the same time I’m trying to play at a high level.”

Riley, who turned 33 in December, never considered quitting even though he was secure financially. He had made more than $8 million. He and his family didn’t need golf to sustain them. The fact was despite his lack of success, he loved golf, he still was hungry, and the competitive fires still were burning inside.

He talked to Dwaine Knight, his coach at UNLV who had become a close friend over the years. Knight told him he still had the skills to compete with the game’s best. He just had to find a happy medium between his personal and professional lives.

“Chris is so talented,” Knight said. “I told him to be happy with himself, to enjoy playing. He knows his own game awfully well, and when he chips and putts like he’s capable of, he’s one of the best out there.”

Michelle Riley, who had played on the LPGA Tour, was supportive. She told her husband to trust his game, and win or lose, she and the girls always would be there for him. So as he headed off to the Nationwide Tour and called in markers for sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour, Riley began to put his golf life back together.

“It was a very tough adjustment,” Riley said of starting a family while in the middle of his career. “Traveling through airports. Living in hotel rooms. That’s not easy. The kids don’t sleep well at night.

“If it’s between golf and my family, my family will always come first. But my wife understands this life, and she supports what I’m trying to do. That makes it so much easier for me to go out there now. Without her, I probably wouldn’t be playing.”

Riley also went to the Nationwide Tour with a good attitude.

“It’s a very good, competitive level,” Riley said. “There’s no shame for me going to the Nationwide Tour. If you’re going to compete, it doesn’t matter what level it is, you have to perform.”

Riley’s recent win buoyed his spirits. His confidence level is the highest it has been in three years, and he’s going to have an opportunity to build on his Nationwide win in the next month.

He is in Grand Blanc, Mich., this weekend competing in the $4.9 million Buick Open as a spot opened after Tiger Woods withdrew to play daddy to his newborn daughter. Woods, a good friend of Riley’s, invited him to play in next week’s $6 million AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Then it’s on to the $4.1 million John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., and following that, Riley is scheduled to play in the $4 million U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee.

That’s four straight PGA Tour events. Some good golf would enhance his chances of landing a sponsor’s exemption to compete in the Oct. 11 to 14 Frys.com Open benefiting the Shriners Hospital for Children at TPC Summerlin and TPC Canyons.

“I hope to be there,” Riley said of coming back to Las Vegas, where he, Michelle and their children live. “I wrote to the tournament to see about getting a spot.

“These next four weeks are a big stretch for me, no question. But the win was so uplifting for me. I feel good about my game again.”

Entering the Buick Open, Riley had made $175,192 for 2007 playing in six PGA and two Nationwide events. Knight said winning is the best kind of elixir for an athlete who needs a confidence boost.

“That win was big for him,” Knight said of Riley’s victory in Minnesota. “He knows he has to chip and putt to put bread on the table, and he can do it.”

Coincidentally, both of Riley’s pro victories have come in playoffs — he won the 2002 Reno-Tahoe Open by beating Jonathan Kaye in a one-hole playoff. Ironically, Riley’s win at Somerby came on Father’s Day. The golfer who was struggling to juggle a family and a career now had something sweet to share with his wife and two little girls.

“That made it extra special,” he said.

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