John Riegger learned his lessons well at the Champions Tour Qualifying School last year. When it was time to apply them, Riegger knew exactly what to do.
Even though Riegger was leading the Boeing Classic through two rounds last week, some of the better-known pursuers were getting a lot of attention. It didn’t bother Riegger. It only made him more determined.
“What they don't realize is I had to shoot 66 the last day (of q-school) just to get in a playoff and there's a whole heck of a lot more pressure in that situation,” he said.
The impressive final round provided a lifeline for Riegger by keeping alive his hopes of advancing to the Champions Tour. He was among four players who finished tied for fourth and played off at the national qualifying tournament. Jim Rutledge claimed the fourth available spot on the first extra hole. Now there were three golfers for one spot and Riegger secured it with a birdie on the second playoff hole.
Esteban Toledo and Chie-Hsaing Lin were the two golfers to miss out but the paths of Toledo and Riegger would cross again in a roundabout manner.
Riegger wasn’t eligible for the Champions Tour until his 50th birthday on June 13. He made his Champions Tour debut at the Encompass Championship, where he tied for 26th. The Boeing Classic was his fifth start, and Riegger made it his breakthrough victory. He shot 69-64-68 for a 15-under 201 total. It was good for a two-shot victory over John Cook.
With Riegger waiting on the sidelines for his milestone birthday, Toledo, who eventually finished seventh at q-school when Lin claimed the sixth spot, earned a conditional exemption and was eligible to play some events until Jeff Brehaut (the second qualifier) and Riegger became 50. Toledo took advantage of it by winning the Insperity Championship and gained full membership on the Champions Tour.
With the victory, Riegger earned a one-year exemption on the Champions Tour and a two-year exemption into the season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. That makes life much easier and answers the questions of where the globetrotting Riegger will be playing next.
“I can kind of set a schedule and I think there's some good things that come for me,” he said. “I'm not going to just sit back and relax and not work on my game. I've been working really hard.”
Riegger last played full-time on the PGA TOUR in 2008. He spent the next two years on the Web.com Tour.
“If you looked at the scores on that Tour, you've got to shoot 6 under to actually make the cut,” Riegger said. “That Tour actually helped me prepare more for out here than it probably would from the regular TOUR just because you have to go low and keep going low because there's a lot of young players.”
Riegger won twice on the Web.com Tour, the most recent victory coming at the 2010 Rex Hospital Open at age 46. He also won the 2007 LaSalle Bank Open in Chicago. His career-best finish in 224 PGA TOUR starts is a T5 at the 2006 John Deere Classic.
“Any time you beat these guys out here you've definitely accomplished something,” Riegger said. “Not to take anything away from the young kids I beat on the Web.com because Keegan Bradley was one of them, he's a major champion winner, and you've got Jason Day, he's a great player. There are so many good players no matter what tour you're playing on these days.
“Everything in my career has prepared me for this moment. Good friends of mine that have been playing the Tour for a long time, they thought I should have won tournaments out on the regular TOUR. Why I didn't, I don't know. I guess I'm just a late bloomer.”
There is more, of course.
“I'm healthy,” Riegger said. “Pretty much my whole career on the PGA TOUR I either played out of the Tour school category or the 126-150 category. When I had finally become fully exempt I broke my shoulder. I've had two shoulder surgeries and a knee surgery over the last seven years, and a hand surgery. Finally, knock on wood, that’s all that's behind me.”
The long-hitting Riegger never doubted that he could have a successful career on the Champions Tour.
“A couple of my buddies that I grew up with, Russ Cochran and Kenny Perry, they've had a lot of success out here and I kind of know how their games are and kind of how my game is, just kind of was keeping an eye on that,” Riegger said.
“Russ has been a great friend over the last three or four years, him playing out here, trying to prepare me mentally how things go on out here, how the golf courses play, same thing as the Web.com Tour. Guys, they start going low, they don't stop, they keep going, and that's understandable because you're talking about some of the greatest players that played the PGA TOUR.”