Riley's win over Jonathan Kaye in a playoff on Sunday at Montreux Golf and Country Club has actually been a work in progress. Since joining the PGA Tour a handful of years ago, Chris has steadily climbed into the rarified air of the tour's elite. He's improved his money list position each and every year and came into the Reno-Tahoe Open ranked 29th on the money list and 54th in the world.
A week ago at the PGA Championship, Riley finished an improbable third. But in doing so, he proved he was ready to take that next step. The smooth swinger who rang up All-America status four times at UNLV had been in the hunt before, but never had he truly 'showed up' at one of the tour's top events. He played Saturday at Hazeltine with Tiger Woods, who just happens to be a good friend dating back to junior golf days and a Walker Cup in 1995. Riley matched Woods that day and said he learned a lot about himself and what it takes to hang with the best.
Sure enough, Riley played the pro-am at Reno as the favorite among Nevada fans and media types like us who felt like he truly was ready to reach the next level. Riley was loving it. 'I'm just so glad I'm going to the Masters!' Riley said. 'Everybody's asking me for tickets. I don't know how many I get.'
He said he felt like it would soon be 'his time.' He opened with 71 and then followed it up with three more sub-par rounds, culminating with a Sunday 67 playing with Jonathan Kaye. Riley did it with solid driving and better-than-average ball-striking. But most of all, he did it with putting.
Riley came into the week as the PGA Tour's No. 8 player in putting, and this week at Montreux he ranked No. 1. Just 97 putts needed for the entire week - four off the PGA Tour's all-time record for 72 holes. Twenty-six, 24, 25 and 22 on Sunday. Wow!
Let me tell you a little bit about Chris Riley. He's refreshingly real. A good kid who appreciates his opportunity. He's quietly funny, telling us he's mistaken for David Duval when signing autographs and quipping that his buddies in California (where he was born and grew up) are sick of him not getting enough airtime.
The engaged-to-be-married Riley is really the kid next door. You know, the kid you'd expect hanging out with his buddies at Dairy Queen or jumping bikes over the ramps we used to make in the old neighborhood days. He doesn't look like the 'super-hero' athlete. Instead he looks 'approachable,' and I like that. And his upcoming December wedding in New Orleans might actually be a wedding and not an 'event' as many of his private jet-flying celebrity comrads might have planned and actually promoted.
Wednesday before the Reno-Tahoe Open began I asked Riley about the great week he'd had at Hazeltine and the $300,000 he'd earned for third place. He quickly chirped back, 'It was $375,000! But who's counting!' Actually Chris Riley earned $374,000 at the PGA Championship, but I loved his response because it was real. He's loving life like he should at this stage.
This week he added another $540,000 for the win in Reno, which will launch him even higher on the money list and make the Tour Championship a distinct possibility. I, for one, hope he gets there.
Chris Riley won't ever forget this week. I can promise you that. And just like his buddy Tiger probably won't forget that he made his professional PGA Tour debut in Milwaukee alongside John Elliott and Jeff Hart, Riley shouldn't forget that he started the week in Reno alongside Richard Zokol and Mike Sposa.
Good luck, Chris. They might have been playing for more money and among 'bigger names' in Seattle, but in the 'Biggest Little City in the World,' I'd argue that your win is bigger and better. And guys like you are and wins like that are what really makes professional golf the best sport of them all.