Once Successful as a Player, but More Fulfilled as a Father
By KAREN CROUSEJAN. 25, 2014
Before Thursday, Chris Riley’s last tour start was in August. “My decision was to be able to watch my kids grow up,” he said.
SAN DIEGO — After his opening round at the Farmers Insurance Open, Chris Riley joked that he felt like the San Diego Chargers backup quarterback Charlie Whitehurst being thrust into action in the postseason. If Riley felt rusty, and a little rattled, it was understandable. Before Thursday, his last PGA Tour start was in August.
Riley, 40, a San Diego native and resident, was not forced off the tour by injury or ineptness. He left of his own volition, becoming a part-time golfer so he could be a full-time father and husband. With more than $12 million in career earnings, Riley had the financial freedom to choose his family — which includes his wife, Michelle, and daughters Taylor, 9, and Rose, 7 — over work.
Riley’s course would appear the higher road taken, a detour that is the quickest route to personal contentment. But in sports, where the prevailing mind-set is “I compete, therefore I am,” Riley is considered by many as having gone mad for forsaking his considerable gifts.
“I know,” Riley said. “I don’t understand it. To be a great professional golfer, you’ve got to be really selfish.” He added, “We’re all in a bubble playing golf.”
Riley lived in the bubble for the better part of 16 years. The first athlete in any sport at Nevada-Las Vegas to be named an all-American four times, Riley won the Reno-Tahoe Open in 2002 and earned a spot on the 2004 United States Ryder Cup team.
That was then. “Now I want it to be all about my kids,” he said, adding: “If you want to pursue golf until you’re 70, that’s your decision. My decision was to be able to watch my kids grow up and be involved, and how can you be involved when you’re gone 25, 30 weeks of the year?”
Content to be semiretired until he turns 50 and his children are out of the house and he is eligible for the Champions Tour, Riley said he spent his free time when his daughters were in school learning new skills, like how to barbecue.
“Fortunately, I get along with my wife,” he said, laughing.
Riley never wanted to be defined solely as a professional athlete. Though he kiddingly compared himself to Whitehurst, he is actually more like the former Giants running back Tiki Barber, who walked away from the N.F.L. in 2006, at age 31, to pursue other career opportunities.
Barber attempted a comeback five years later. Riley, who turned pro in 1996 and last played a full tour schedule in 2011, has shown no such inclination.
“I feel good about my decision,” he said Thursday after carding a two-over-par 74 at Torrey Pines’ South Course.
Riley earned his spot in the field last Monday in qualifying, which he said he had entered on a whim. He quickly realized that his regular recreational rounds with his wife and friends were not adequate preparation for the challenge presented by a field headlined by the world No. 1, Tiger Woods, and the former tournament winners Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Brandt Snedeker.
“That’s usually what I prided myself on, being ready for tournaments, but I came out here and there’s Phil and Tiger, and I’m like I’m really not even prepared,” Riley said. He added, “You walk on the putting green and you see Snedeker and Woods, it’s a little different than playing in a Monday qualifier.”
With his wife, a former L.P.G.A. player, caddying for him, Riley got off to a shaky start. He played his first nine holes in 40 strokes and his second nine in 34.
“I just had no rhythm, no touch,” Riley said. “I started finding it toward the end.”
On Friday, he posted a 71 on the North Course and missed the cut by one stroke. His score was beside the point. It meant everything to Riley that his children were able to take the day off from school to be a part of his gallery in the second round.
His older daughter was born two weeks before the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in suburban Detroit. A happy but sleep-deprived Riley went out the second day of the three-day competition and, paired with Woods, defeated Darren Clarke and Ian Poulter. The American captain, Hal Sutton, wanted to stick with the pairing of Riley and Woods, whose partnership with Mickelson the previous day had resulted in two losses, and Riley for the afternoon matches, but Riley begged off, Sutton said, citing fatigue. Riley finished with a record of 1-1-1 in the Americans’ upset loss.
After that, Riley’s results dropped off precipitously. From 1999 to 2004, he posted 26 top-10 finishes on tour, including the victory and a couple near-victories in the majors. In the eight years since, he has seven top-10s. His Ryder Cup experience did not reshape his attitude toward pro golf; fatherhood did. The birth of Riley’s second daughter in 2006 made traveling with or without his family a trial.
It was a dilemma for Riley: He did not believe it was fair to drag his children from one hotel room to the next, but he hated leaving them behind.
“Honestly, I tell that to Michelle all the time: I don’t know how players do it,” Riley said. “That’s their choice. My choice is to be the softball coach for my kids.”
He added: “It’s so hard, because when I’m out there and I start playing good, I’m like, I kind of want to go home to see my kids on the weekend. You should be thinking about winning the golf tournament, not thinking about what’s going on back home. I battled that for three or four years. And then finally I just said: You know what? I’m done.”
Mickelson, 43, a father of three who called Riley “one of the nicest guys I know,” said: “I get it. Playing the tour isn’t for everybody. It’s a hard life. It’s difficult. It can be wearing on yourself and your family. If that’s what he feels is best for his family, you’ve got to respect the guy for it.”
Riley is always up for a game with friends. He recently joined his fellow San Diegan Charley Hoffman and two members of the Chargers, Danny Woodhead and Eric Weddle, for a round. Riley’s swing was the same as it always was, prompting Hoffman to ask him at the end of the round, “Why are you not playing on the tour?”
The question was rhetorical. Hoffman knows what Riley’s priorities are.
“He just has, in my mind, no desire to be on the road and travel and be away from the family,” Hoffman said. “He just doesn’t have the drive to go out and do it. I wish he did because I still think he’d compete and play well out here.”
To those who find Riley’s lack of drive in golf lamentable, Hoffman said: “I think it’s just the opposite. What a father to stay home with his family and want to raise his kids.”