There’s a nice little story at the top of Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament at his Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin (Columbus), Ohio. Chris Riley has returned from the dead and leads the tournament at 6-under par. He’s tied with Rory McIlroy and they have a 1-shot lead over another guy who’s had his troubles of late, Chris DiMarco, whose last good year was 2007.
But my interest is in Riley who had a resuscitating year last year, quietly crossing the $1.0 million mark. But it was a long drought that dated back to 2005 in which he ultimately found himself bounced back down to the Nationwide Tour. Now that’s no big come down if you’re still learning how to play the game and you need to go back down for a little remedial work. But in 2004, Chris Riley played on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. And he was paired with Tiger Woods.
His appearance was memorable because that was the same year that Phil Mickelson changed equipment from Titleist to Callaway. Two weeks before the Ryder Cup and two weeks too soon for him to have dialed the new equipment in. And compounding the competitive tension between Woods and Mickelson, they were paired together by Captain Hal Sutton and Mickelson stunk the place up (1-3-0). When Mickelson hit it out of bounds during Foursomes (alternate shot) Tiger was not amused.
On the other hand, Woods and Riley had a history going back to their Southern California junior roots and his 1995 appearance in the Walker Cup with Woods. And so when they were paired together in the Ryder Cup, it might have looked like a mismatch with Tiger’s power and grace and Riley’s get-the-ball-in-the-hole swing, but it wasn’t. They beat Darren Clarke and Ian Poulter in Saturday morning’s four-ball match 4 and 3.
And the single snippet I took away from that entire match was Tiger watching Riley on the tee of one of the par 3s. Riley was into it. He was focused. He was in the zone. He was oblivious to everything except hitting a good shot. Autopilot. So he hit his quirky-swing shot and stuck it very close to the hole. As he took it in, you could see that he was on an adrenaline high, fairly mesmerized by having done precisely what he was trying to do. And the camera angle was such that as you watched the absorbed look on Riley’s face, you could see Tiger watching Riley too. And when he saw the result, his face broke into a wide, admiring, are-you-kidding-me smile of appreciation and camaraderie. Riley wasn’t thinking, he was just totally being in the moment.
So I found it interesting in skimming his post-round interview last night that he had drifted away from what made him so successful.
… I just wondered if you could maybe reflect a little bit, without going into your life story, just everything you’ve been through since then both maybe physically with your game and mentally in your head to get back to a level where you can
…No, my game has been [shifting] I started off really hot when I came out here on tour and then I guess I got older and started thinking about what I was doing. And then that started [shifting] it’s pretty good when you’re in your 20s and you’re really not thinking about what you’re doing, at least it was for me.
I had a pretty nice year last year. These guys are so good out here, if you don’t play the best level of golf, then you’re going to get blown away. It’s been a struggle. I think this is my 13th season out here and the first six were great and the next three after that were really not that good, and I’m trying to climb out of a hole right now.
But I played solid last year. I think I was 90th on the Money List, and this year has been I’ve made some cuts and I top tenned in Hawaii, but it hasn’t been that great.
I think maybe the fringe golf fan that maybe pays attention only to the big events might think that the Ryder Cup had some large effect on your psyche.
Well, that was a pinnacle for me. That was like I worked really hard to get there, and then when I got there, it was the most amazing event I’ve ever played in. And then I guess it was a letdown after that. I felt like I accomplished my goal of getting there, and then when I did it, it was pretty cool.
There was really no negative stuff. I had a child the next year and then the family comes into play, and I guess I haven’t been the best at doing that. But it’s been good, though. I mean, I’ve enjoyed having the kids. I just feel lucky that I’ve played some great golf in my career and now I have a great family, so there’s no [shifting] you ain’t going to hear anything bad out of me.
You talked a little you touched on this a little bit, but it looks like you’ve had some good rounds, but putting a tournament together has been
Yeah, like last week in Texas I was right there going into the last day and I shot 8 over. It was real windy, but I’m just thinking too much, really. I’m just trying to turn off my head and play golf. If you play well, then I’m just so result oriented right now instead of just doing and it’s easy to do.
It’s kind of funny, a lot of guys that I came out here with aren’t here anymore and as you can see, it’s a tough game. For me it’s just I’m just thinking too much, and the less I think the better I do, and today I didn’t have time to think. The pace of play was so good and I didn’t stand around and think about shots, I just played golf.
“I just played golf.” I had one other player utter those exact words to me when I was Monday qualifying in Sacramento one year. Soft-spoken Robert Landers created a huge splash when he came off of his ranch in Azle, Texas and won his Champions Tour card in sneakers. He was explaining to me how he did it. “When I came out here, I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know who to be afraid of. I just played golf.”
So as Robert Landers knew then and Chris Riley is discovering again, you can’t play golf when you’re thinking. You just have be almost totally immersed in being, being in the moment, and trust your instincts and muscle memory, just as he was on that tee of that par 3 at the Ryder Cup all those years ago.
It’s a delicate, heady walk that requires a lot of experience and practice, but a walk well worth taking. Because it reveals our magic to us, it’s the best the game has to offer.