With a bogey-free, 5-under 67 in the opening round of stroke-play qualifying at the 67th U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, Riley built on the momentum of his strong play this year in his final bid for a U.S. Junior title.
Riley, 17, of Hattiesburg, Miss., executed a clinical round on the 7,219-yard, par-72 layout of the Nicklaus Course at The Club at Carlton Woods. Riley mixed the accuracy off the tee and the dialed-in precision for his approach shots that one would expect of one of the top juniors in the country.
Playing in his third junior event at Carlton Woods – he finished 17th at the 2013 HP Boys Championship and sixth at this year’s AJGA CB&I Boys Championship on the Fazio Course – Riley capitalized when the golf course presented him with an opportunity for a good score.
Coming in today, I just told myself it was all about fairways and greens, Riley said. I did exactly that. I hit a ton of greens, made a few putts when I got it up there within 10 feet and just went from there.
It was playing pretty tough. There’s definitely a low number out there, but you have to play target golf off the tee and put yourself in good spots.
Monday’s performance backs up Riley’s strong 2014 campaign in both the junior and amateur ranks, which thus far includes four top-10 finishes in six events, highlighted by his April victory at the Terra Cotta Invitational at Naples (Fla.) National Golf Club.
Winning the Terra Cotta, which includes names such as Matt Kuchar, Jerry Courville Jr., Bud Cauley and Justin Thomas among its champions, gave Riley confidence heading into his third U.S. Junior. It was also a relief after posting four runner-up finishes in his junior career.
It helped me out a lot. I had so many runner-ups, he said. It felt really good to get all that weight off your shoulders and get that win at a big-time tournament.
Riley’s most painful runner-up finish occurred in last year’s U.S. Junior at Martis Camp Club in Truckee, Calif. Riley led Scottie Scheffler by as many as 3 up in the 36-hole final before eventually falling short by a 3-and-2 margin.
Trailing by two holes, Riley’s championship bid officially ended when he called a Rules infraction on himself on the 34th hole. Facing a long birdie putt from just off the green, Riley barely nudged the ball at address. The one-stroke penalty clinched the hole and the match for Scheffler.
An unfortunate end such as the one Riley endured at Martis Camp could rattle the most seasoned of players. But the results say Riley has moved on quite nicely.
Riley’s 2014 started with the sixth-place finish at the CB&I, and followed that up with his victory at the Terra Cotta. He also finished sixth at the AJGA Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. After placing 23rd and 38th at the AJGA Thunderbird International Junior and Sunnehanna Amateur, respectively, Riley rebounded with a seventh-place finish in late June’s AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions.
It was tough to get over. It’s still on your mind after the tournament, Riley said of the Rules infraction. But you can’t let that bother you. You have to press on and block that out. It’s a new year and a new tournament, so I’m just going to go from there.
Riley is taking a simplistic approach in his bid to erase last year’s disappointment. Despite the great start, Riley knows it’s just the beginning. He is set up for a high seed when match play begins on Wednesday. Riley plans on playing smart, safe golf on Tuesday to try to ensure a top-10 to top-15 seed.
Assuming he advances to match play, Riley knows where he needs to improve upon from last year.
Leading into this tournament, I’ve been really trying to dial in my putting, he said. Your putter wins you matches. Everybody is going to be up there putting for birdie and you just have to make your putts.
Finding fairways off the tee, hitting the greens in regulation and strong putting – Riley’s game plan, one no doubt shared by everyone else in the field, sounds simple enough when you put it like that. But quite often it does not work out that way.
There’s a long way to go, but perhaps Riley can continue to execute his plan and write the U.S. Junior ending he’s been hoping for.
Joey Flyntz is an associate writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.