A funny thing happens whenever Chris Riley, a lowly rookie on
the PGA Tour, steps onto the practice green. The caddies and the
other pros stop to watch him work. Why? Because Riley, a
25-year-old fresh out of Q school, has what they all want: a
cash-flow stroke with the money club, the putter.
Even Tiger Woods, with whom Riley has been bumping heads since
they were kids growing up in Southern California, has to be
impressed with Riley's standing as the fourth-best putter on
Tour, his lofty position on the money list--51st through the
Houston Open--and his status as everyone's choice as the player
from the class of '99 most likely to succeed. The link between
Riley and Woods is much stronger than any manufactured rivalry
between Woods and David Duval. Riley finished second to Woods in
the Optimist Junior World Championship in 1991, when he was 17
and Woods 15. "We were paired the last day, and I had a one-shot
lead going to the 12th hole," Riley says. "I hit a three-wood to
the green, and Tiger hit a seven-iron. He made birdie, I made
bogey, and I was history after that." In 1994 Woods beat Riley
on the 17th hole in the final of the Western Amateur. "Tiger was
quoted in the newspapers as saying, 'It's tough beating your
friend,'" Riley says. "It seems like I've known him forever."
Riley and Woods cemented their friendship when they were
teammates at the 1995 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl, in Wales.
"I watched him hit balls for an hour and a half, and he was
remarkable," Riley says. "I told him, 'Let me caddie for you on
the Tour.' He said, 'Yeah, right, Riley.'"
Riley wouldn't want that job now, considering how well his own
career is going. In less than half a season he has had three top
10 finishes and has won $310,161, which is only about $60,000
short of what he'll need to make the top 125 and earn an
exemption for next year. Only one other rookie, Carlos Franco of
Paraguay, is higher (47th) on the money list, and the number of
other rookies who have had some success this year is limited.
Eric Booker, a 35-year-old former club pro from Michigan, seemed
headed for victory in the Honda Classic in March before being
nipped by Vijay Singh, and Rory Sabbatini of South Africa led
April's BellSouth Classic until he was overtaken on the closing
holes by Duval.
Riley almost won his first event, January's Sony Open, in
Hawaii. He birdied four holes in a row on the back nine of the
final round to tie for the lead. His drive at 15, though, hit a
tree, and he made bogey. He parred in and tied for seventh. He
also tied for seventh in the Buick Invitational and for ninth at
"I'm not surprised," says his caddie, Fred Brown, 62, a retired
teacher who coached the golf team at San Diego's Madison High
when Riley was a student there. "I almost expect it. Chris can
Brown first saw Riley play when Chris tagged along with his
older brother, Kevin, to Madison practices. "The first day Chris
came out he was a little guy, only 12," Brown says. "He was in a
bunker, about 120 yards from the green, and probably had like a
six-iron out. He said, 'Coach, what will you give me if I make
this one?' I laughed and told him to try to hit the green. Chris
hit it six feet from the hole, and his ball rolled right over
the cup. All he said was, 'Well, I tried to make that.' That's
when I knew he was going to be a champ."
Riley was a four-time All-America at UNLV, his team coming up
three strokes short of winner Arizona State in the 1996 NCAA
championship. He didn't make it past the second stage of Q
school later that year, and in '97 missed his Tour card by a
single shot. "It was devastating," he says. "I actually broke
down and cried. You play 108 holes and miss by one, and you
think, Damn. Now I think missing was the best thing that ever
happened to me. I spent a year on the Nike tour [with Kevin, who
is playing there again this season] and worked my way up to the
Last fall's Q school was equally tense. Riley opened with a 74,
which is the highest first-round score made by a player who
would go on to gain a card. He played the final two rounds in 10
under par. The surge began when he borrowed Brown's putter.
Riley's had had an accident on the next-to-last hole of the
fourth round. "I was hitting it really well and not making
anything," Riley says. "I, uh, kind of bent it."
Though his fast start suggests otherwise, Riley hasn't found
adjusting to the big Tour easy. Because of his low status as a Q
schooler, he doesn't play in the Wednesday pro-ams and therefore
misses a valuable day on the tournament courses, which he's
often seeing for the first time. "At Harbour Town [MCI Classic]
I played a practice round on Monday, and my second round was on
Thursday," Riley says. "Davis Love has won there four times and
has probably played 150 rounds on the course. I thought, Do I
really have a shot?"
In addition to his putting, Riley counts among his strengths the
fact that he is a fast, decisive player. "He's way faster than
John Daly, John Huston or Lanny Wadkins," says Tour veteran
Chris Perry, who was paired with Riley two weeks ago in
Greensboro. "If he misses a green and has a 30- or 40-yard shot,
he'll walk up and back and make up his mind in no time. I'd
advise him to evaluate it a little longer, but obviously that's
not his style. He has a lot of game and a lot of shots around
Riley's chief weakness is his iron play. He is only 168th in
greens hit in regulation. With his pure putting stroke, all he
needs to do to become a force is give himself more birdie
opportunities. He could also stand to be a little less
aggressive. "Sometimes you have to hit it pin-high left or
hole-high right--that's maturity," Brown says. "He doesn't have
that yet. He gets mad when I talk him out of going for a par-5
in two. He just bombs away at the pin. No fear."
Riley showed exactly how bulletproof he thinks he is earlier
this year during the third round of the Phoenix Open. At the
16th hole, the par-3 that's notorious for being the loudest and
rowdiest hole on Tour, he backed off his tee shot and cupped his
hand to his ear, egging on the fans, then went ahead and swung
while they were screaming. Riley missed the green but was
rewarded with cheers instead of the usual boos. "You've got to
have some fun out here," he says.
The PGA Tour is a far cry from Tecolote Canyon, the executive
course in San Diego on which Chris and Kevin learned to play.
They would ride their bikes to the course and pick up range
balls in exchange for free rounds. By the time Chris was 14, he
was playing money games against men two and three times his age.
He finds the sums he plays for now almost comical. "You finish
seventh here, you make 80 grand," says Riley. "On the Nike tour,
you made $4,500 and thought it was good. I can't imagine winning
$450,000. I don't even believe this is real money out here."
Oh, it's real, all right. So is he.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND Fast start Riley was in contention in his first tournament in '99, in Hawaii, and is close to securing his Tour card for 2000.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND Sabbatini, who just turned 23, is the youngest player on Tour. Bob Martin
Head of the Class
As the season approaches the midway mark, Carlos Franco and
Chris Riley have separated themselves from the rest of the class
of '99 and are the front-runners for rookie of the year. Franco,
who turns 34 on May 24, would be the oldest player ever to win
the award. Riley, 25, would be the first golfer from UNLV to win
it. Here are the top rookies of '99.
STARTS/ TOP 10 TOP 25 SCORING MONEY RANK
1. Carlos Franco 8/5 2 (T3) 4 70.49 $346,520 47
2. Chris Riley 10/8 3 (T7) 6 70.35 $310,161 51
3. Doug Dunakey 10/4 1 (T3) 2 71.86 $192,983 81
4. Rory Sabbatini 9/5 1 (T3) 1 71.96 $171,621 96
5. Eric Booker 12/6 1 (T3) 1 71.61 $165,015 99
6. Greg Chalmers 12/4 1 (T10) 1 71.84 $110,219 124
7. Mike Sposa 10/6 0 2 71.38 $106,585 126
8. Chris Couch 10/2 1 (T7) 1 72.69 $96,045 129
9. Joe Ogilvie 12/5 0 2 72.18 $79,576 136
10. K. Miyamoto 9/3 0 1 71.77 $69,179 150