PALM HARBOR — One stroke at a time, Davis Riley climbed up the leaderboard at the Valspar Championship on Saturday.
Riley, a rookie on the PGA Tour, made it look easy on Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course, shooting a bogey-free career-low 9-under 62 in the third round to lead by two at 18-under 195 over second-round leader Matt NeSmith, who shot 69.
Riley broke by four the tournament 54-hole scoring record last set a year ago by Keegan Bradley and Sam Burns, the latter of whom remained very much in the mix to win back-to-back titles.
Burns shot 67 Saturday and was three shots back with Justin Thomas (66).
Riley felt a comfort on the course Saturday playing with fellow Alabama alumnus Thomas.
After Friday’s second round, the two exchanged text messages about their excitement to play with each other in a pairing for the first time. And it worked well for both as they pushed each other throughout the afternoon.
“It’s always fun when you get to play with a good buddy, and Justin, obviously, is one of the best players in the world and for him to be a friend, too, there was definitely a level of comfort there for that,” said Riley, 25.
That comfort showed as Riley worked his way out of a few tough situations.
On the seventh hole, Riley’s tee shot landed in the left rough. A few large oak trees blocked a path to the green. Using a 7-iron, he landed his next shot from 135 yards as perfectly as a veteran. The ball rolled to the green within 10 feet for a clutch birdie, his fourth of the round.
“I judged it perfectly, and it rolled up there nicely,” Riley said. “And to make that putt was just icing on the cake.”
Riley’s stellar play didn’t end there. From the upslope of the bunker in front of the ninth green, 70 feet away, Riley blasted the ball and watched it bang into the cup on the fly for another birdie.
“I knew I had to hit it pretty hard because it’s just so easy to hit that one and leave it 25 feet short,” Riley said. “So I just really tried to make sure I hit enough on it, and maybe I got a little too much of it. But, yeah, for it to slam dunk, it was crazy. … That was pretty lucky.”
Riley can be the first rookie winner on the tour since Garrick Higgo at 2021′s Palmetto Championship at Congaree in Ridgeland, S.C.
Riley feels like he has built up to the chance of winning a tournament. He missed the cut in six of 13 previous tournaments this season. He has one top-10 finish, tying for seventh at the Butterfield Bermuda Championship in October.
“I felt like I’ve been playing good golf for a while, I just haven’t gotten the results I want to,” he said. “I haven’t been too happy with it, but yeah, I’ve just been trying to be patient. I’ve been hitting it well, and now I finally got the putter rolling and kind of right where I wanted it, and that’s why I’m playing well this week.
“It’s nice to get up there (on the leaderboard).”
Riley won twice on the Korn Ferry Tour: the Panama Championship in February 2020 and the TPC San Antonio Championship at the Oaks in July 2020. This season he has had the chance to play with veterans besides Thomas, including Adam Scott, Jason Day and Jon Rahm. They draw “big crowds” and have helped prepare him for moments like this weekend, he said.
“It is a little bit of nerves, but you have the adrenaline going, so you’re starting to hit the ball a little bit further, and it’s just different trying to navigate that.” Riley said. “And I was prepared for that (Saturday), and those experiences really helped me.”
And he feels like he’s ready for another high-pressure situation today paired with NeSmith.
“No matter the stage, it’s hard to win a golf tournament,” Riley said. “Just being in contention and having that blood flowing is huge. Anytime you can get just a pinch of that and get that experience is huge, and just winning twice (on the Korn Ferry Tour) served me well.”
Contact Mari Faiello at email@example.com. Follow @faiello_mari.