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Chris Riley returns on an exemption

The Buick Invitational feels like home for Chris Riley. He grew up playing Torrey Pines, and he was runner-up to John Daly three years ago when his 3-foot putt in a playoff rimmed out of the cup.

But he came home this week by invitation only.

Riley is playing this week on a sponsor's exemption, the result of being in a free fall since playing in the 2004 Ryder Cup. He was 184th on the money list in 2005, but kept his card because of a now-extinct exemption for members of the last Ryder Cup team. He finished 150th on the money list last year and lost his full exemption.

It got worse. Riley went to Q-school and opened with an 83 on a blustery day. He withdrew two days later.

"I hit rock bottom," Riley said Tuesday. "I walked back out onto the range and they were like, 'Geez, this guy played on the Ryder Cup and now he's shooting 83 at Q-school.' It shows you what the game is all about."

Riley has struggled to balance life on the PGA Tour with two young daughters, and there is a lingering notion that his Ryder Cup experience -- where he told captain Hal Sutton he was tired after winning a fourball match with Tiger Woods -- also took a toll.

Whatever the case, he says his hunger has returned.

"My confidence has been shaken from not playing well the last couple of years," he said. "It's not like I can't play like I used to. I've got to chip and putt my butt off to compete out here; that's a given. I've got to make a couple of 30-footers, and I was doing that for quite a while. Now they seem to just bend over the edges."

Riley is one of the best putters on tour, and he has given up trying to become a big hitter. He hit the gym religiously during the offseason, but says it isn't helping him add distance off the tee.

"I've come to the conclusion that I'm never going to hit it like Charley Hoffman or Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson," he said. "But if I can get my putter going, I can compete a little bit."

The biggest concern now is getting into tournaments.

This is the only sponsor's exemption he has received on the West Coast, and he hopes to get into Pebble Beach and Mexico, the new tournament opposite the Accenture Match Play Championship. He thinks he can get into a dozen tournaments, and he plans to play eight or nine times on the Nationwide Tour.

"I'm going to play like it's my last tournament," he said. "I've got maybe a dozen shots this year, and if I don't do it, back to Q-school."

January 24, 2007


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