Davis Riley came to the fifth hole with a two-shot lead. He left trailing by one. What happened in between was tough to watch. What happened after was extremely impressive.
Let’s start with the basics: Riley is an Alabama grad with a textbook swing and an enviable on-course disposition. He’s a rookie on the PGA Tour this year, though his promotion from the Korn Ferry Tour came at least a year overdue; he won twice on the feeder circuit in 2020. Thus far on Tour, his only brush with contention had been a T7 at a windy, wild Butterfield Bermuda Championship last fall.
But here he was, 58 holes into the Valspar Championship, holding the lead at a big-time Tour event.
And then things got weird.
Riley’s tee shot at the par-5 fifth sailed left and settled behind a tree. After some deliberation he decided his best course of action was to play left, down the sixth fairway, up near the 8th tee.
“Yeah, I just hit a bad tee shot and then from there it was just kind of a cluster,” Riley explained afterwards. He took aim at the tee box itself, which he hoped would leave him with an angle and a look at the flagstick. Instead he pulled it long and left of that target and drew a strange lie. That’s where things got messy.
“Honestly, I think where it went wrong was after I dropped, got relief from the tee marker,” Riley said. “Yeah, it was just sandy, kind of weird grass over there, and maybe I just tried to hit too much of a perfect shot instead of making sure I blast it over the green and give myself just an up and in at par.”
Riley had just over 100 yards left to the hole. But he caught too much dirt with his wedge and his next shot traveled about half the required distance, caught a tree and settled at the base of that tree. The lie was bad and the position was even worse; Riley’s only chance to hit the ball would have been left-handed. He took an unplayable lie instead. Now hitting his fifth shot, Riley sailed his pitch shot through the green and into the rough.
Later, the NBC broadcast would retrace his steps with a particularly vivid graphic that made it clear the extent to which Riley had been on the move.
His sixth came out with too much speed, too. Now he was playing his seventh and still wasn’t on the green. After a lag putt from the edge of the rough, Riley mercifully completed the hole. His 8 was the only triple bogey on the hole all week, and it had taken him some 30 minutes.
Suddenly his chances at the tournament seemed over; Riley was facing a one-shot deficit and all the negative momentum in the world. But golf is a funny game. From the rough right of the sixth fairway, Riley found the front right edge of the green and executed a tough two-putt. Two holes later he canned a 50-footer for birdie. Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course was showing its teeth, which meant his competition was struggling, too. Riley buried a seven-footer for par at No. 9. He was hanging tough.
His back nine got off to a textbook start. Par at 11. Two-putt birdie at the par-5 11th. A bogey at No. 12 was a minor setback and he just missed a birdie look from inside 10 feet at No. 14. But he made pars at the challenging 15th and 16th holes and stepped to the 17th tee just one shot off Sam Burns’ lead.
He stepped over his golf ball on the tee of the 198-yard par-3. Then he stepped off. When he stepped back up he made one of the best swings of the entire week; he hit a tight draw that tracked at the flag the entire time, pitched just short of the hole and rolled to six feet. It was the best tee shot of the day at No. 17. He buried it for birdie.
“I knew I needed to make a birdie to at least be tied going into the last hole,” Riley said post-round. “I just told myself I need to hit a good shot and, yeah, I made a really good swing on it. Hit it right on the button, and then to cap it off with the putt was nice.”
Easier said than done, but suddenly Riley was tied for the lead. He split the tight fairway at the par-4 finisher, found the middle of the green and left himself with a putt to win the tournament. It wiggled just right.
What happened next was outside Riley’s control. Facing down one of the best golfers in the world in Sam Burns, Riley got up-and-down for par at the first playoff hole and could only watch as Burns buried a 30-footer for birdie on the second.
When his chip to tie slipped past the pin, Riley was left with the silver medal and a bittersweet conclusion to a week in Tampa. Emphasis on the sweet.
“We’ve played a lot of golf together, he’s somebody that I’ve always looked up to,” Burns said of his vanquished opponent. “He’s a world-class player, great guy.”
Justin Thomas stuck around to root on Riley, who followed in his footsteps at Alabama.
“It’s incredible,” Thomas said, asked to describe his game. “He’s a great player. No matter what happens today it was a great week, a huge learning experience for him.”
NBC analyst and longtime Tour caddie John Wood was particularly impressed with Riley’s moxie.
“HUGE future ahead,” he wrote on Twitter.
As for Riley himself?
“Yeah, very solid week. A lot to build on,” he said. “No, I can’t hang my head about anything. I played a lot of good golf and unfortunately I didn’t have my best stuff today and I stumbled on hole 5 today and that kind of cost me.”
An understatement on all fronts, good and bad. He’ll fit right in on Tour.