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Davis Riley | Charles Schwab Challenge

By PGA Tour

FORT WORTH, Texas – A week ago, Davis Riley wasn’t sure he could concentrate on a swing thought, let alone play winning golf.

His older sister, Caroline, had suffered a seizure at work. Doctors found a tumor and recommended surgery right away. That happened Wednesday in New York.

Riley feared the worst, of course. The wait was unbearable. His eyes glistened Sunday afternoon as he discussed Caroline in – of all places – the champion’s press conference at the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial Country Club. Pathology tests revealed a benign growth, the winner said.

The story of how Riley went from doubting his appearance at Colonial to winning it has many subplots. There was the disappointing season of seven missed cuts in 14 starts, with only one top 25. There was the reunion with a former swing coach, who helped Riley focus on what he could control: his comportment and attitude in competition. There was the cautious assurance that his sister would recover.

It all ended Sunday with a tartan jacket and a trophy.

Riley won his first individual tournament in 89 starts on the PGA TOUR with a gutty, gritty 14-under-par score (266) at historic Colonial. He shot 66-64-66-70.

He played the final round with a sense of acceptance and calm, surprising perhaps given the weight of his sister’s well-being on his mind. He never lost control.

A feisty wind waved the ancient pecans on old Colonial. The greens firmed. The sun was boiling. The Bermudagrass rough taunted players who missed the narrow corridors of fairway. The course played Sunday to an average score of more than 72 strokes, by far the highest of the week.

Only Collin Morikawa (68-69-67-68, solo fourth) played all four rounds under par.

Only Riley kept damage to a minimum. He made just seven bogeys through four rounds. He led the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green at 11.4, ranked second in Approach the Green (7.9) and fourth in Putting, with 5.9. It was even, steady golf for the 27-year-old from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who starred at Alabama with fellow TOUR players Lee Hodges and Robby Shelton.

“I just tried to wear out the fairways and greens and try to get a couple opportunities and roll some good putts and if they went in, great,” said Riley, who now lives in the Dallas area and plays out of Maridoe Golf Club. “If not, I knew pars were good coming in.”

Scottie Scheffler, who started four shots behind in second place, could never make the move many expected of the No. 1 player in the world. An opening-round 72 included two balls in the pond on the par-3 13th – the first his wind-flattened tee shot, the second one thrown in disgust after he putted out for a triple-bogey 6. After coasting through the next 44 holes without a score-harming error and firing a thrilling 63 in the third round, Scheffler made bogey on the fourth and the fifth, missing both greens.

“As far as today goes, I just wasn’t able to put as much pressure as I would have hoped to put on Davis early in the round and he just kind of cruised all day,” Scheffler said.

Keegan Bradley rallied briefly. He finished with a 3-under 67 and tied for second with Scheffler at 9-under. Morikawa took fourth alone at 8-under.

“Just a grind,” Morikawa said of the week.

Riley leaned on his efforts last week with his swing coach in Tennessee. The two of them got together again after a brief annulment and tightened Riley’s concentration on targets. They established a better routine for holding images through the swing and created novel ways to deal with the stress of being in contention. The work … worked.

“So proud,” texted Jay Seawell, his former head coach at Alabama. “He has been through so much lately but never lost his belief.”

His exquisite feel on and near the green Saturday saved his lead – and even his tournament. Riley found only six fairways. He hit 11 greens. But he was a nifty 5-of-7 in scrambling in the third round and took only 26 putts. It was a round that could’ve gotten away from him. Instead, he shot 66.

“It says a lot about his short game, to be honest,” said Hodges, who played two years at Alabama with Riley.

What was less visible was the work Riley started the week of THE PLAYERS Championship with his coach, Jeff Smith. Riley was moving the club too far inside on the takeaway, shutting the face early. Smith has been helping Riley to “get the starting lines tighter and very little curve on the ball,” Smith wrote in a text Sunday.

They also spent a lot of time last week on the mental approach, wrote Smith, the director of instruction at Spring Creek Ranch in the Memphis suburb of Collierville, Tennessee. They sharpened Riley’s focus on his target. They developed routines they called “neuro-hacks” to slow down Riley under pressure.

“Almost like hitting the reset button after a poor outcome,” Smith wrote. “He put on a clinic doing this (Saturday) in some tough spots.”

The clinic continued Sunday from more tough spots. It was a hot, gusty afternoon on the Trinity River. Riley failed to birdie the par-5 first, playing a half-stroke under par as the easiest hole on the course. He then made bogey on the short par-4 second, the third-easiest. Playing alongside, Scheffler made par.

“I tried to treat today as if we both started tied and I just tried to win the day,” Riley said.

He did. Riley steadied the round with a birdie on the par-3 fourth. Scheffler bogeyed. Riley played even-par golf until the 15th, when he drove into a deep fairway bunker and wedged from 37 yards through the green. He made bogey there, by which time Scheffler was too far back to contend and Bradley was on the last hole, three shots behind at 10 under. Riley had a seven-shot lead after his birdie on the par-5 11th. Now it was three with three holes to play.

Bradley bogeyed the 18th. A short while later, Riley stuffed his 161-yard approach on the par-4 17th to less than 4 feet – a closing statement. He holed the birdie.

“It’s been a slower start to the year than I’ve been wanting and obviously this helps a lot, catapulting me in the right direction,” Riley said.

The first player to greet him was Nick Hardy, his partner in the team-format Zurich Classic of New Orleans. They won the tournament last year – the first PGA TOUR titles for both players, an indelible moment in their young careers. Hardy saw the birdie on 17 on a television in the Colonial clubhouse. He went outside, watched the winning putt and gave his longtime friend – their competitive history dates to the AJGA – a quick, tight hug.

“Davis’ game has clearly been trending to me for a while,” Hardy said. “It’s just fun to see it pay off.”

The fun is just beginning. With his win, Riley captured 500 FedExCup points, moving him to 55th in the rankings. He can slow down with the confidence of a champion. He can continue to sharpen his imagery without the pressure of winning his first individual event. He can refine the neuro-hacks.

“I feel like physically I’ve had it going for a little bit and I feel like kind of just staying in my own lane and kind of controlling what’s going on upstairs has been a huge help,” Riley said.

Everything was thrown at him. A profound health scare. A firm course with wind. A pairing with the best player in the world. A chance to win his first stroke-play TOUR title.

Riley controlled what he could.

He said he told his caddie: “I want to get lost in the process of it. I want to just be so focused on what I’m doing, the process I’m going through, picking targets, being really detail-oriented. I just wanted to get lost in that and then show up on 16 and 17 and be right where I wanted to be.”

The birdie on 17 put him five ahead. A closing par from the greenside bunker made him a champion. His wife Alexandra was there to see it all.

She can tell Caroline and his parents what it was like to see Riley right where he wanted to be.

Check out “Watts” in Davis Riley’s bag below.

Driver: Titleist TSR3 (9 degrees) – Shaft: Project X HZRDUS Smoke Green RDX 70 6.5 TX

3-wood: Callaway Paradym Ai Smoke Max (15 degrees) – Shaft: Fujikura Ventus TR Black 8 X

Irons: Titleist T200 (3), Titleist T100 (4-6), Titleist 620 MB (7-9) –
Shafts: Fujikura Ventus Black HB 10 TX (3), KBS Tour C-Taper 125 S+ (4-9)

Wedges: Titleist Vokey Design SM10 (46-10F, 50-08F, 56-08M, 60-04T) –
Shafts: True Temper Dynamic Gold Tour Issue S400

Putter: Scotty Cameron Phantom X 7.2 Prototype – Grip: SuperStroke Zenergy Pistol Tour

Ball: Titleist Pro V1