Rising stars try to continue roll in Reno

Updated: August 22, 2002, 2:26 AM ET
Associated Press

RENO, Nev. -- Former UNLV star Chris Riley figures he has as good of a chance as anyone to win the Reno-Tahoe Open after his third-place finish and the confidence he gained from going head-to-head with Tiger Woods at last week's PGA Championship.

Riley, Charles Howell III and rookie Pat Perez -- each with more than $1 million in winnings this year -- are among the rising stars mixing it up at Reno this week with such PGA Tour veterans as Mark O'Meara, Corey Pavin and Lee Janzen.

Past PGA winners Mark Brooks and Bob Tway and 1982 Masters champ Craig Stadler, who formerly lived at nearby Lake Tahoe, are among the other major winners who begin play Thursday at the fourth $3 million Reno-Tahoe Open.

The top 78 players in the world qualified for the World Golf Championship NEC Invitational also being played this week.

That means defending Reno champ John Cook and previous winners Scott Verplank and Notah Begay III will be at the NEC Invitational at Sammamish, Wash., rather than the young tourney at the 7,472-yard, Par 72 Montreux Golf & Country Club on the edge of the Sierra Nevada.

Though the Reno-Tahoe open has helped jump-start the careers of the past winners and has increasingly attracted a crop of rookie talent soon to be ranked among the world's best, it has been unable to secure a title sponsor or network television contract and is struggling to survive beyond this year.

Riley, who improved to 29th on the money list with $1.2 million, was paired with Woods on Saturday at the PGA at Hazeltine in Minnesota.

``We shot the same score (72),'' he said. ``Playing with the No. 1 player in the world on the weekend at a major and tying him can't do anything but boost your confidence.''

The 28-year-old Las Vegas resident who graduated from UNLV in 1996 with a degree in communications grew up playing junior golf with Woods in San Diego but has never beaten him.

``I've known him since I was 10 years old. I'm not really intimidated,'' Riley said. ``The main thing I had to do was not catch myself watching him play. He's fun to watch.

``In the junior world championships when were 17 in 1991, I had a three-shot lead with seven holes to go. He beat me by one or two. ... I'm still waiting for that day I can return the favor,'' he said.

Local sports books have made O'Meara (12-1) and Howell (15-1) the favorites. Riley and Steve Flesch are 20-1.

``Every week I see Charles Howell, I think he's due for a victory,'' said J.P. Hayes, who claimed his second PGA Tour victory earlier this summer at the John Deere Classic and has played well at Reno in past years. ``He's done awfully well for a while to not have won.''

``Steve Flesch seems like a guy who should have won. It's just a matter of time for both those guys. Mark O'Meara is playing well too,'' Hayes told reporters after a practice round Wednesday.

O'Meara, who won both the Masters and the British Open in 1996 and is 15th on the career money list with $12.7 million, has tied for second twice this year and ranks 67th with $682,396 in earnings.

Perez, the first PGA rookie to top $1 million, and Riley, whose 70.10 scoring average is 14th on tour, both have finished in the Top 10 at four tournaments this year.

``I feel like I can win every week,'' said Perez, who was second at the AT&T Pebble Beach and tied for second at the Buick Classic.

Howell, who tied for 17th at the PGA and was fourth at last year's Reno-Tahoe Open, has three Top 10s this year.

``I've been playing well,'' Howell said after a practice round Wednesday.

``I had a good PGA Championship last week except for about 11 holes... I think winning out here is tougher than a lot of people give it credit for. There are so many good golfers out here. At the end of the day, there's not much difference between first, second, third or fourth. It's just a game of inches.''

Riley said his goal this year was to finish in the Top 40 and qualify for the Masters. But his third-place finish at the PGA locks him into the Masters, so now he's gunning for a Top-30 finish that would earn him a berth in the Tour Championship.

``I'm playing really pretty well,'' said Riley, who has won more than $700,000 since the first of July, tying for fifth at the Advil Western Open and John Deere Classic, finishing 22nd at the British Open and tying for 14th at the International.

``A couple of extra putts are falling. My 71s are turning into 69s. I've continued to be on a roll,'' he said after a practice round Wednesday.

``I'm looking for good things this week too. I don't see any reason why I can't win this week. It would be great, especially to win in my home state of Nevada.''

Bryce Molder, 23, third at Reno last year, and Aaron Baddeley, 21, a three-time winner on the AustralAsian tour, are among the other youngsters aiming for their first PGA Tour win at the Jack Nicklaus-designed course that meanders through towering pines and mountain streams in the shadow of the 10,900-foot Mount Rose.

Brooks, winner of the 1996 PGA, was third in the International at a similar Castle Pines course in Colorado earlier this month.

Janzen, winner of the 1993 and 1998 U.S. Opens, and Tway both are having decent years -- Tway at 48th on the money list with $928,333 and Janzen 51st at $848,459.

Pavin, who won the U.S. Open in 1995, only has had one Top 10 finish over the past two years but tied for 22nd at the British Open last month.

The field also includes Jeff Maggert, Duffy Waldorf, Tim Herron, Billy Mayfair, Estabon Toledo, Dan Forsman, Billy Andrade, Cameron Beckman, Peter Jacobsen and Frank Lickliter II.

Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press