Davis Riley heard the cry of “Roll Tide” several times during the third round of the Valspar Championship and couldn’t help but smile. Some of them may have even been for the 25-year-old rookie out of Alabama.
The majority of them were for his older, better-known, and more successful playing competitor Justin Thomas, who once showed around young Riley on a recruiting visit. On this day, it was Riley who deserved the majority of the applause in this friendly third-round pairing as he birdied half the holes at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course. It included dunking a bunker shot at the ninth for birdie en route to a bogey-free 62 and a two-stroke lead over Matthew NeSmith.
“It was really impressive,” Thomas said. “It’s a big moment for a rookie and anybody, and he handled it like a rock star and made 9-under look very, very easy barring a crazy chip-in there on 9.”
On another warm, sun-soaked day, Riley improved to 18-under 195, setting the 54-hole scoring record and on pace to break the 72-hole scoring mark at the Valspar Championship set by Vijay Singh in 2004 (18-under 266).
Veteran caddie Lance Bennett joined Riley on the Korn Ferry Tour in July. The last time he’d caddied for that circuit? In 2006 with Matt Kuchar, which led to a decade together.
“I knew how good (Riley) was so I was like I’ll make the investment,” Bennett said. “There are a handful of guys on the range (at KFT events) that you know they won’t be there for long and he was one of those guys.”
Riley notched two wins and seven top-10 finishes during the 2020-21 Korn Ferry Tour season to earn a promotion for finishing in the Top 25 of the regular season. He’s recorded just one top-10 finish in 13 events so far, entered the week ranked No. 121 in the FedEx Cup standings and No. 399 in the world, but he’s learned from playing with the likes of Jason Day, Adam Scott, and current World No. 1 Jon Rahm during the final round of the American Express.
Riley, who opened with rounds of 65-66, birdied his first two holes Saturday, wedged it tight at No. 6, and then stole another birdie after driving it left at the seventh. He punched a 7-iron below a tree that scooted inside 10 feet and canned the putt.
“That’s just one of those shots that you try to judge, and I judged it perfectly,” Riley said.
For his next trick, he drove it right, punched low into the front greenside bunker, and from 69 feet from the hole jarred it for birdie. Riley punched the sky with his right fist and high-fived Bennett.
“Those are the things that fairytales are made of for this young man,” PGA Tour Radio’s Mark McCumber said.
“It was on the up slope of the bunker so I knew I had to hit it pretty hard to get it back there to a back pin and I actually clipped it really good,” Riley said. “It was funny because I was walking up to get it out and Justin is just looking at me laughing, I’m like, yeah, that’s pretty lucky.”
Riley tacked on birdies at both par 5s – Nos. 11 and 14 – and two of the three par 3s on the back nine – Nos. 13 and 17. When Riley drilled his 17-foot birdie putt at 17 to reach 18 under for the tournament, Thomas gave him a thumbs-up as he walked off the green. Riley needed just 20 putts and gained nearly four strokes on the greens in shooting his career low on the PGA Tour. (He’s first in Strokes Gained: Putting this week as well as leading the field in SG: Off the Tee and SG: Around the Green.)
“They were all going in,” Thomas said. “They were going in with great speed right in the middle. Very, very effortless.”
Early on, NeSmith continued to play stress-free golf and looked as if he might run away with the tournament. He backed up his second-round 61 with four birdies on the front nine and was the first to get to 18 deep. But after going 45 consecutive holes without a bogey, NeSmith made four bogeys on his way to the clubhouse, including at Nos. 16 and 17 to finish with a third round 2-under 69. Both NeSmith and Riley are seeking their first Tour title.
Thomas, on the other hand, is chasing No. 15. He shot his third straight 66 and is tied for third at 15 under with defending champion Sam Burns. He’s long been impressed with Riley’s game and his work ethic and noted that Riley was the player he remained closest to at Alabama after he turned pro.
“We’re very, very similar in terms that we’ll work really hard and we expect a lot out of ourselves and have high expectations,” Thomas said.
They’ve shared texts back and forth this week, including Thomas saying on Friday evening, “About dang time we played together.” Thomas always has been an open book to Riley but a Thomas pep talk ahead of the final round may not be in the cards. “I hope he does (text me) tonight so I can ghost him so fast,” Thomas said. “I think the world of him, but respectfully, I hope I destroy him tomorrow.”
The powerhouse golf school down in Tuscaloosa, Alabama hardly feels like it’s part of the state. It’s so incredibly steeped in tradition with the revolving door of PGA superstars it’s been pumping out the last decade… we can’t discount Dicky Pride though! He’s as “good ole boy” as they come and he couldn’t be more different than this younger crop of talent. These young guys are tall, polished, and they look like they’ve been in the gym since birth. Davis Riley is the cookie cutter Ture star that Bama produces… he launches it high (which is perfect for the Tour) and rolls it beautifully. I played with him at the Huntsville Championship last year and right when you thought his back was against the wall he went on an epic 25 footer + putt run. Never count this young gun out. Great story about NeSmith… I played the US Open qualifier in ATL back in 2015 and saw that I was paired with an Am. I was a little annoyed because ya neva know how that’s gonna go. It turned out to be South Carolina’s #1 player Matt NeSmith. He went on to shoot -17 for two rounds qualifying for his 1st US Open by 10 shots. Who’s laughing now? Him… at me.
The Valspar Championship’s 54 hole leader Davis Riley is a can’t miss player on the biggest stage. Sure, he has just recored one top-10 in his short career out there but it was in Bermuda where it was blowing 1000. I rode in the bus back to the hotel with him after Sunday’s round (I caddied for Russell Knox that week) and was pretty blunt in saying, “I gotta be honest dude I didn’t think your high-launch would work in this wind.” Willy was wrong again… Davis can hit the ball highly in the wind but the strike is so pure that it doesn’t matter. So impressive from the Mississippi native turned Bama boy. Roll Tide. Good luck today Ture boi’s