THE WOODLANDS, Texas – For Davis Riley, there will be no next year in his attempt to win what became an elusive U.S. Junior Amateur Championship.
For the second successive year, Riley, 17, of Hattiesburg, Miss., lost in the final, this time by a 5-and-3 margin to William Zalatoris, 17, of Plano, Texas, Saturday at The Club at Carlton Woods’ Nicklaus Course.
While two players had previously rebounded from a loss in the final to win the following year – the last being Tim Straub in 1982-83 – Riley becomes the first in this championship’s 67-year history to lose two straight final-round matches.
"I’m really proud of how I played," said Riley, who lost by a 3-and-2 margin to Scottie Scheffler at Martis Camp Club in Truckee, Calif., a year ago Last year was kind of the same deal. "I played well, but Scottie won the last four to win it. So, similar performances and I didn’t beat myself either time.
"It gives me a lot of confidence to know that I can play with anybody when my game is on."
Riley, who has committed to the University of Alabama for fall 2015, played the 33 holes of the par-72, 7,212-yard Nicklaus Course in 3 under par given the usual match-play concessions. Zalatoris, who will attend Wake Forest University starting in August, was 7 under par for the match.
Zalatoris and Riley have known each other for eight years, since they played in a U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in Pinehurst, N.C. The champion had nothing but respect and praise for his friend and competitor.
"I told him exactly what I said during the awards ceremony, you're an incredible player," Zalatoris said. "He was a great player then and he's an incredible player now. I said I had the round of my life today. I said for me to win and have the round of my life means that you weren't far off. I told him, ‘Keep at it kid,’ because that was awesome."
Riley recognized he was in for a Texas-style shootout when he and Zalatoris combined for four birdies in the opening three holes. On this sweltering day, the finalists combined for 21 birdies and an eagle.
Riley took the match’s first 2-up lead with a birdie at the 160-yard, par-3 12th hole, but Zalatoris managed to square the match by the end of the morning’s 18.
Zalatoris rolled in birdie putts of 12 and 20 feet to win the opening two holes of the afternoon round and stretched his lead to 3 up through the 27th hole.
"I was just telling myself, ‘Stay in it, you fought back against Sam [Horsfield] and that came out pretty good,’ " said Riley, who rallied from a 2-down deficit through 12 holes to defeat the second-seeded Horsfield in Friday’s 21-hole semifinal. "I got to 2 down [against Zalatoris], but when I missed an 8-foot putt for birdie on 13, I kind of knew from there it was going to be a tough road ahead."
Then Zalatoris holed out for eagle from 119 yards on the 437-yard, par-4 14th hole.
"There’s not much you can do at that point," Riley said.
Said Zalatoris of his afternoon round, "That round today, on that golf course, under that type of pressure, that's the best round of my life today."
Throughout this week, Riley was asked about last year’s gut-tugging loss to Scheffler. That match ended when Riley called a Rules infraction on himself as he prepared for a birdie putt on the 34th hole. Riley said the ball moved at address, leading to a one-stroke penalty and a bogey.
Each time, Riley answered in a poised, respectful manner. But he admitted that the loss stung and served as motivation for this week’s championship.
"It hurt for a while, but I got over it," said Riley, who qualified for the U.S. Amateur by advancing to Saturday’s final. "I’m a golfer, there is always another tournament."
That may be, but sadly there will be no more U.S. Junior Amateur Championships for him to try and win.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.