The Players Championship
Players 2023: Beware this TPC Sawgrass rookie, who isn't really a TPC Sawgrass rookie
Davis Riley walks off the first tee during the third round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH — One of the best traditions at the Players Championship occurs on Wednesday morning, when all the first-timers are made available to the media just outside TPC Sawgrass' sprawling clubhouse. Most of them are wide-eyed and eager to get the week started, well aware that one of the toughest tests of their young careers awaits.
And then there was Davis Riley, leaning back in a director's chair and appearing at ease despite all the chaos surrounding him. Riley is a "rookie" in name only at TPC Sawgrass. Yes, this is his first appearance in the Players Championship, but he's played in high-level competition at this course before.
"I played the Junior Players Championship back in 2013 and 2014," said Riley, who turned 26 this past December. "So I've been around here a handful of times. To see it with the grandstands and all the fans that will be out here, it's pretty cool. Obviously it's one of the most iconic finishes in golf. It'll be fun."
A month before the 2013 Junior Players, Riley, then a 16-year-old rising star from Mississippi, lost to Scottie Scheffler in the final of the U.S. Junior Amateur. He then finished in a tie for 22nd in the Junior Players, shooting a final-round 73 at the Stadium Course. The following year, he returned to the final of the U.S. Junior Amateur, this time losing to Will Zalatoris. A month later, he shot an identical three-day total of 224, finishing with a 71 on the Stadium Course to tie for 25th.
"It was in August, so it was all still Bermuda," Riley said. "Now it’s overseeded so it looks a little different. But there’s definitely a little bit of familiarity there.
"It’s in awesome condition, it’s one of my favorite golf courses."
Among his opponents in those two Junior Players were names such as Collin Morikawa, Cameron Young, Sam Burns and Scheffler, all of whom are here this week and have become well-established players. While he did win twice on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020, Riley's not quite there yet, but he's on a similar path.
Ideally, the Florida Swing would be the spot on the schedule where Riley can make that leap. He nearly did it right around this time last year at the Valspar Championship, where he lost in a playoff to the aforementioned Burns at Innisbrook's Copperhead Course. A month later he began a streak of five consecutive top-20 finishes, highlighted by a T-4 in the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial.
Up until last week, that remained his most recent top-10 finish on tour. A poor finish to the summer and a so-so Fall and West Coast swings soon followed. Then he got to Florida. His comfort zone. A T-29 at the Honda Classic got him back on track, and final-round 66 at Bay Hill, which matched the low round of the day, earned him a T-8 and, more importantly, some much-needed confidence.
"It is [one of my favorite parts of the schedule]," said Riley. "When I was in my first year last year, this Florida Swing is when I hit the ground and started running a little bit. Coming off a really nice week last week, hopefully I can just build on that and continue some good golf.
"It was a culmination of things," Riley said of a rough West Coast stretch that included three missed cuts in four starts. "Came off a really good season last year. Think I put a little added pressure on myself to try to win early, kind of hindered myself. I don’t think I was as sharp, and yeah, I struggled on the West Coast last year [too], so I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite. Not a cop-out, but it’s not my favorite golf, I’m a Southeast kid, so i enjoy this a little more. Just a comfort thing."
We'll see just how comfortable Riley remains on Thursday, when he'll begin his first official Players Championship at 1:29 p.m. ET off No. 1 tee. Beware the TPC Sawgrass rookie, especially one who isn't actually a rookie.