Alabama-bound Davis Riley transitions from junior to amateur

There’s nothing quite like a young player’s excitement during his first major championship. It’s a feeling Davis Riley, 18, experienced last month at the U.S. Open.

“You get the chills playing in the tournament with these guys,” Davis said. “I had the last tee time on Thursday and that was tough. I woke up at 6:15 and was already anxious to get out there.”

Of course, a major championship week goes far beyond just teeing it up with the pros in competition. The perks include courtesy cars, a locker – Riley’s was right next to Justin Rose’s – and a tournament staff on call at all times for duties as seemingly minute as a shoe cleaning after a long round.

Riley played practice rounds with Brandt Snedeker and Brian Harman on Monday, Retief Goosen on Tuesday and Ryan Palmer on Wednesday. Harman said he might join Riley and his father, David, on a future fishing trip, and Snedeker offered some advice about professional life.

“He told me that you have a lot of free time out here,” Riley said. “You’re always on the road, you always have two-three days off to do whatever. He said to just be really mindful of who you keep company with out here on Tour.”

Riley compiled an enviable list of memories even if he did miss the cut. Back home in Hattiesburg, Miss., he’s not just a run-of-the-mill junior. He carries the golfing hopes of his state.

“There’s never been a golfer of this caliber to come out of Mississippi,” said Allen Smithers, Headmaster at the Presbyterian Christian School and Riley’s former high school golf coach. “He and Wilson Furr are the future.”

The high regards aren’t the delusional thoughts of a state desperate for a golfing savior. Riley could be the most underrated player in the class of 2015.

Riley has been as high as No. 2 in the Golfweek Junior Rankings (he dropped out of the rankings recently as junior events dropped out of his 52-week rankings window), sandwiched between top-ranked Sam Burns (LSU) and No. 3 Austin Connelly (Arkansas). Those players have far outpaced Riley in national exposure.

While Burns and Connelly are known as the movers of this incoming freshmen class, Riley quietly bolstered his resume to their level.

As far back as 2012, the interest was already rolling in. Ten of the then-12 schools in the SEC offered Riley a golf scholarship when he was a high-school freshman.

In 2013, he finished inside the top 30 in every AJGA event he played and made it to the final match at the U.S. Junior. The following year, Riley captured the prestigious Terra Cotta Invitational, becoming the youngest player to win that event. He repeated his run to the finals at the U.S. Junior a few months later, and earned a Byron Nelson International Junior Golf Award earlier this year.

And that doesn’t even cover his high school exploits. Riley has won six of the last seven state high school titles in Mississippi, and maintained a 64.5 scoring average as a senior.

Riley will join the Alabama roster this fall and could have an immediate impact just like Justin Thomas and Robby Shelton did.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a great year and is a First-Team All-American,” Alabama head coach Jay Seawell said. “We’ve had a pretty good track record with freshmen, and I think Davis can do the same thing.”

The story of how Riley started playing golf could be copied and pasted into several Tour bios. At the age of 3, Riley watched his father throw some balls on the ground and the youngster started swinging. It didn’t take long for Riley to become enamored.

“He just took it and ran with it,” said David Riley, Davis’ father. “He never looked back and never chose anything else to do.”

Smithers heard about Riley when Riley was in the fifth grade. He approached the youngster about joining the PCS golf team.

The next fall, Smithers tested Riley in a pre-season match against Jackson Prep high schoolers.

“Davis was about 4-foot-10 and a chunky little guy and I really had my doubts about how good he was,” Smithers said. “Well, I took him up to Jackson, he played in the match, and he shot even par and won the tournament. He was hitting driver, 3-wood into 380-yard par 4s and he beat some of the best high school golfers in the state.”

As Riley grew, he blossomed into a longer-than-average hitter. An early struggle for distance has helped him maintain accuracy.

At first, Riley was interested in a spot on the University of Florida’s team, but then he switched his attention to LSU as the school recruited him heavily his freshman year. Alabama was in the hunt as well thanks to an unusual source: former Alabama football coach Ray Perkins.

“Ray called me and said ‘There’s a boy in my neighborhood and you need to get him. If you don’t do it, he’ll go to LSU,’” Seawell said.

Seawell saw Riley at the Juniors Players Championship the next week, and quickly agreed with Perkins’ assessment. One shot in particular stuck out: a beautifully played cut to 15 feet on a treacherous par 3. It was the type of strike that proved Riley wasn’t just trying to hit a good shot, but a specific shot.

Riley verbally committed to Alabama in the fall of 2012.

“Davis has got a little Jordan Spieth in him,” said Brian Whitcomb, who captained Riley and U.S. teammates at the 2014 Junior Ryder Cup. “It’s just the way he carries himself, such a nice kid. It’s refreshing to see a Spieth look-alike.”

Whitcomb remembers Riley as a locker room leader who teamed up with Burns and Brad Dalke (Oklahoma), to provide the necessary team energy. Riley’s passion wasn’t necessarily surprising considering that before his selection, he was going to play the Junior Players Championship (to lock in his spot on the team) despite painful blisters covering his feet.

“I’ll bet he asked me 10 times, ‘Are you sure I don’t have to play this week to be on the team?’” Whitcomb said. “And I kept assuring him that I would be picking him regardless. He said, ‘I’ll limp around the golf course this week if I have to, to make sure I’m on this team.’”

In the 2013 U.S. Junior final, Riley was 2 down with three holes to play and staring at a slippery 40-foot birdie putt from the fringe. He needed par to continue the match, but standing over the birdie putt, he thought he saw the ball move and thus summoned an official.

“I’ve replayed the video a bunch of times and you can’t see the ball move,” said David Staebler, Golf Channel’s rules correspondent that day. “There wasn’t really gallery close by either, so he was the only person who was able to see his ball move.”

A one-shot penalty sunk him in the match, but Riley’s action didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, at the U.S. Open, a USGA official approached Riley and told him they still show a video of that self-refereeing in certain workshops.

Staebler, the director of rules education for the USGA, confirmed that over the past two years the first thing shown at PGA/USGA Rules of Golf workshops has generally been a “spirit of the game” video in which Riley’s noble effort is juxtaposed with a baseball player faking a hit by a pitch.

Letters poured in, too. Bags of them. Mississippi congressmen and senators, attorneys and judges sent thoughts to the Rileys from across the country.

“We got so much mail from people that we didn’t even know,” David Riley said. “They were all letters praising the honesty and integrity of Davis calling a penalty on himself. We were kind of shocked we were receiving all this mail.”

And yet, Riley still seems under the radar. Tony Ruggiero, Riley’s instructor for the past few months, chalks it up to chance.

“Sometimes a guy plays a little better at a time where someone is willing to write something,” Ruggiero said. “There’s no real rhyme or reason to it. I think a lot of it is just a luck of the draw, especially with junior golf where people aren’t writing stuff every day.”

Also consider than the state of Mississippi has not been known for producing top players.

“He doesn’t get a whole lot of attention nationally because he doesn’t get a whole lot locally,” Smithers said. “I just don’t think golf is a big sport here like it is in, say, Texas.”

Riley has already completed his last junior event and will embark on a busy summer amateur schedule that includes the Players, Southern and Western amateurs and culminates with the U.S. Amateur.

On practice days, Riley focuses on golf from dawn to dusk, putting in the work on his swing, short game, putting and fitness at various points throughout the day.

With Ruggiero, Riley has altered his hip position and his setup to turn a high fade into a more controlled draw. This has bred more consistency in Riley’s full swing, with the focus now on improving his performance around the greens.

Riley notes that he will turn pro when he feels his game is ready. Part of success at the top level of the sport is about proper attitude. Riley’s easygoing personality also includes an ability to block out the noise.

As for an ability to close, Burns and Riley enjoy a friendly rivalry, and the latter already has a reputation for knocking down clutch shots. On the final day at the Junior Ryder Cup, and with the match in jeopardy, Davis stood on the 18th and hit a shot from 150 yards to 3 feet with 4,000 fans watching.

“Ninety percent of those people were rooting against him too,” Whitcomb said, “and the shot came absolutely at a time when we needed it.”

All that’s missing then, is the attention that his counterparts have received. But Riley only cares about one thing when it comes to golf: winning.

“I don’t think he’s real concerned if anyone knows who he is,” Seawell said. “He just wants to beat people.”

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