Davis Riley is a superstar in waitingOld sparring partner Will Zalatoris is finding fame on the biggest stage, but Riley isn’t far behind
June 20, 2022
By Cameron Morfit , PGATOUR.COM
PGA TOUR – The CUT
Get to know: Davis Riley
Davis Riley was rolling in putts, throwing uppercuts, and working his way up the leaderboard.
Will Zalatoris remembers it vividly. Riley was 9.
“He was exactly the same,” Zalatoris says. “Probably just a little pudgier. He was a fireball. He knew he was good and wanted to be better. I remember playing with him, we were making a run at one of the U.S. Kids at Pinehurst, and he was throwing fist pumps. No one was around.”
If you’re reading the tea leaves for Rookie of the Year, Riley, who is 22nd in the FedExCup as he heads into this week’s Travelers Championship, is ensconced in a tight race with Cameron Young, who sits five spots ahead of him in the standings. Riley was runner-up in a playoff at the Valspar Championship in March and had six straight top-15 finishes going into last week’s U.S. Open at The Country Club, where he finished T31.The TOUR's top rookies Cameron Young (L) and Davis Riley (R) proved a victorious foursomes pair at the 2014 Junior Ryder Cup. (Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
Zalatoris, 25, is a superstar, but insiders are also bullish on Riley, who is 4 months younger. His caddie, Lance Bennett, says he’s growing mentally every week and already “elite-level” off the tee. His old coach at Alabama, Jay Seawell, says he’s had no better iron player – high praise, considering the longtime Crimson Tide coach counts Justin Thomas among his ex-players – in Tuscaloosa.
Heck, even Zalatoris, Riley’s old COVID lockdown roomie in Dallas – each has since gotten engaged to be married, and they no longer live together – says it’s inevitable.
“He’s just scratching the surface,” says Zalatoris, who shares a trainer and agent with Riley. “He’s got that it factor and once he gets that first one the floodgates are going to open.”
How Riley has become one of America’s best young players goes back to that fiery 9-year-old.
Specifically, he had to channel that fire.
“He’s the biggest sweetheart in the world,” says Riley’s swing coach, Jeff Smith, “but on the course he’s burned a little too hot, and he’s had to work on that. We’ve seen that the last eight to 10 weeks, where he’s been in the hunt a lot.
“He’s got the maturity to let a bad shot go,” Smith adds, “and finish off rounds.”
Says Riley of his junior golf self, “I remember that kid. I was very emotional; apparently that was a cool thing to do when you’re 9, the Tiger fist-pumps. We were super competitive at that age and haven’t changed a bit, except for the Tiger fist-pumps part.”
Nowadays you don’t hear much about Riley’s fire. You hear about his swing.
“One of the top three most beautiful swings in the world, and it has not changed,” Zalatoris says. “When he’s on, it’s as good as it can possibly look; I mean the golf ball just doesn’t move from the starting line. It’s an arrow. It’s disgusting it’s so good.”
Riley says that swing just came easily to him growing up some 200-300 yards from the driving range at Jerry Pate-designed Canebrake Country Club in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
“I’d hit balls out my back yard and into the ninth fairway and then go shag the balls,” he says.
The only caveat is he developed a pronounced draw, and when Smith began working with him as COVID ground life to a halt in the spring of 2020, the coach sensed it was holding him back.
“He had been sliding his hips toward the target, tilting his spine away from the target, and his swing path was very in to out, so he’d either hit big blocks or big draws,” says Smith, whose other students include Viktor Hovland and Aaron Wise. “He’d played that way his whole life. It’s a common pattern, especially in junior golf when the clubs are too big for you. As a kid, if you can hit a draw, you think you’re a good player. Then you get to the professional level and say geez, I wish I could stop drawing the ball.
“At this level there’s not as much margin for error, especially with your iron play,” he continues. “We worked hard to eliminate a lot of that movement on his shots, corrected spine angle through impact, stopped the hips from sliding toward the target, and made the hands more passive.”
The changes took hold by the time Riley got to the Florida swing, and he would have won the Valspar were it not for a wayward-left drive that led to a triple-bogey 8 at the fifth hole.
Off the course, Riley will marry his fiancé, Alexandra, on his birthday, December 17. They were set up by Alabama teammate Robby Shelton and his girlfriend, who was Alexandra’s sorority sister. Riley and Alexandra share a passion for the Crimson Tide, yes, but also cooking.
“It might sound stupid-simple,” he says, “but I believe there’s an art to making homemade tacos. You’ve got to do it right, all the details matter; you’ve got to season it right, cook the steak right, cook the chicken right. That’s my go-to dish when we’re home. I kind of wing it; I’m one of those guys, I pick up four or five ingredients and kind of throw it all in there.”
Possessed of every key ingredient on the course, Riley is far from winging it. Smith says his time-management and practice habits are second to none. Adds Seawell, “If he was a stock, I’d buy some.” Bennett, who has 11 wins, seven on TOUR, working for Matt Kuchar, Bill Haas, Paula Creamer, Juli Inkster, and Lorena Ochoa, can see the greatness coalescing before him.
“I’ve seen him improve on his technique a lot, especially with his short game,” Bennett says. “His driver has been elite for a while now, but really elite recently. He’s grown a lot mentally, and just in general. He’s become very comfortable out here and realized he does belong.
“He’s put in the work and is starting to see the fruits of that labor,” the caddie continues. “There’s no question it’s going to happen. It’s not if, it’s when.”