Q-school disappointment means decision time for Riley

WINTER GARDEN, Fla. -- On a day when throats became a bit drier, when palms got sweatier, when the pressure should have really started to suffocate those at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, Chris Riley felt none of it.

Unless the former U.S. Ryder Cup player had an inner need to post a low score or saw some value in trying to work out the issues in his game, Sunday's fifth round at Orange County National did not mean a whole lot to him.

After all but shooting himself out of contention for a PGA Tour card on Saturday, Riley, 33, was faced with two basically meaningless rounds and, if he so chose, a lot of time to ponder the future.

It's not a pretty picture after a 70 on Sunday left him well out of contention for a PGA Tour card. Riley will not have any meaningful status on the PGA Tour in 2008. And he really does not want to play the Nationwide Tour.

"I've been doing this for 10 years on the big tour and I'd be very surprised if I made up my mind to play the Nationwide Tour," Riley said. "I don't think I'll do it. I'll probably get 10 shots on the PGA Tour [through sponsor's exemptions or the past winner's category] and I'll play 10 on the Nationwide. That'll be my year -- 20 events. And then I'll get ready for this again next year. That's pretty much my plan."

Perhaps that was frustration talking, a long year having taken its toll. Riley, of course, can change his mind. And maybe he will. In fact, he would probably be wise to commit to a full schedule on the Nationwide Tour and not bank his future on the whims of one grueling 108-hole week next year at PGA West.

Truth be told, Riley could have avoided this whole scene had he stuck to the Nationwide Tour in 2007. Back in June during the week of the U.S. Open, Riley decided to play the Nationwide event in Rochester, N.Y. And he won. The victory was worth $90,000 and vaulted him into 20th place on the Nationwide money list. Since the top 25 at the end of the year earn their PGA Tour card -- and are sprinkled among the priority list with the Q-school grads -- all Riley had to do was hold his position.

Instead, Riley played the Nationwide Tour just two more times, electing to try and earn his card on the PGA Tour because he still had conditional status. And he did get into 11 more PGA Tour events, making nine cuts and earning more than $300,000. But it wasn't enough to earn his PGA Tour card. Heck, it wasn't even enough to earn conditional status -- he finished outside of the top 150 money winners.

That meant he had to finish among the top 25 and ties here to get back to the PGA Tour.

And he had reason for optimism; Riley saw some good things in his game toward the end of the season. He tied for 11th at the Texas Open and tied for 18th at the Fry's Electronics Open. And then he played well at the second stage of Q-school to advance here.

"I had high hopes, I really did. So it's been disappointing," he said. "I've tried. It's just not working out. ... I don't have it this week, obviously. This golf course is real tough for me, too. I'm not a real long hitter and I'm not hitting it in the fairway, either.

"It's a great test of golf. Six days. I kind of think it's a little unfair to the medium to short hitters because they tip 'em out [move the tees back]. But you have to play and you can always hit wedges close and make putts. Anybody here if they play well they can make it through. You have to play well. Obviously there will be 25 to 30 happy guys at the end of the week and 100-something guys who wish they could do it again."

Riley, who lives in Las Vegas but is moving back to his native San Diego, does not sound like a man who wants to do it again. He has often said that part of his problem in recent years -- since winning more than $5 million from 2002-04 -- is knowing that his family is at home without him. His wife, Michelle, had the first of their two children just before the Ryder Cup in 2004.

But he expects to regroup. Riley and many of those who won't make it this week can use some time to decompress. If he so chooses, Riley can enter the first Nationwide Tour event late next month; he is exempt because of his Rochester victory.

Or he can spend time working on his game, writing letters for sponsor exemptions to PGA Tour events, hoping to have the one good week that would make all this misery go away.

"There are a lot of things I can work on," he said. "This isn't the end of the world for me. I'll be 34. This isn't life or death for me. It's not all or nothing. I'm not planning on quitting golf. I'm relatively young. I'll still play, I just won't be able to pick my schedule like I have in years past. It's frustrating but it's not the end of the world."

Bob Harig is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.